It is 322 days since Sheffield United lost a football match away from home.
If that sounds impressive, consider this: no team in England, no side in the top five leagues in European football (Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A or Ligue 1) can boast as long an unbeaten run.
The Blades will be hoping to extend that sequence by another fortnight by avoiding defeat at Norwich City tomorrow. The signs are promising – they have not lost back-to-back league games since the opening week of last season.
Admittedly, the Blades have not been a top-flight club for the whole of their run, but it is still some achievement. No Premier League side have won their first seven away games after promotion since Blackburn Rovers in 1992-93.
Liverpool, Juventus and Cagliari are unbeaten away in their respective leagues in 2019-20, but the Italian clubs both lost in May, Liverpool have come unstuck on their Champions League travels.
Not since they made the long trip to Swansea City on January 19 have the Blades had to catch the bus home stewing on a defeat.
There have been more draws than wins – 11 stalemates compared to five victories – but being hard to beat is not to be sniffed at for a team most bookmakers were expecting to get relegated from this season’s Premier League.
Chris Wilder’s team have the defensive organisation to drop off and absorb pressure, as they did when Lys Mousset put them in front after 63 seconds at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Their 13 Premier League goals conceded is the most miserly record outside the top two.
“Look at most newly promoted teams in the past 20 years or so, in various leagues around Europe, and one of the factors why they have some success is often a good defensive structure and stability,” argues Norwich manager Daniel Farke.
“When you are outstanding at scoring goals maybe it is harder to make that step in the same way, because you come up against better defenders and it is harder to control the game and possession compared to the year before. Pretty often teams with a good defensive stability find it easier.
“In Germany, teams like Cologne and Paderborn were promoted and praised for scoring a lot of goals but they have struggled while Union Berlin, who had more defensive stability, is in a more solid mid-table position. That is Sheffield (United)’s big strength.”
Incredibly, Thursday’s 2-0 defeat to Newcastle United was their heaviest in 62 games.
“They were really good in the first half and you could see why they were unbeaten in seven,” said Steve Bruce after masterminding victory over his old club.
“It’s quite an unbelievable statistic. They’re a good side with a top-class manager and you could see why they’re going to be a threat to any team.”
If it was just about clinging onto clean sheets, though, the Blades would come unstuck against the top teams in the Premier League. Their defensive solidity lays a platform which allows them to counter-punch and give the opposition something to think about themselves.
Playing a 3-5-2 formation which often sees centre-forward David McGoldrick drop off when his side is in possession allows them to get plenty of bodies behind the ball and close up the gaps opponents will look to pass through. With the speedy Mousset leading the line and wing-backs, outside centre-backs and attacking central midfielders encouraged to bomb forwards at the right moment, they can quickly swamp teams on the counter-attack.
Content to get the ball down and play when the situation suits, their willingness to go direct when it is the best option means they can switch from defence to attack in the blink of an eye. According to WhoScored.com, the Blades play the most long balls per game in this season’s Premier League, and if that makes the football snob in you uncomfortable, Liverpool are third. The feeling in the Bramall Lane dressing room is that they should have more points than the 19 they have taken from their last 15 games. It is no great stretch of the imagination to say they could have won at Tottenham Hotspur, at Wolves, and at home to Manchester United in recent weeks.
“You look at them three games and yeah the three draws were good but we could and probably should have taken three points from some of them games,” argues centre-back John Egan. “Every game is an opportunity.”
Having scored five of the Blades’ last 11 Premier League goals and assisted three of the other six – form which saw him nominated as the league’s player of the month while Wilder was shortlisted for the managerial award – it was a bit of a surprise when Mousset was on the bench on Thursday but with the fixtures starting to mount, Wilder has to think about the here and now.
Ultimately Sheffield United came unstuck, and it may be that Mousset and his fellow substitute McGoldrick are back in the XI at Carrow Road, but Wilder is always careful to make sure he has plenty of attacking alternatives.
“We have that option to put them back in,” says Wilder, who will be looking to strengthen his squad in January. “But I thought the two boys (Billy Sharp and Oli McBurnie) played well on Thursday night, in particular Oli.”