Are Sheffield United the worst Premier League team ever? This is what the numbers say – The Athletic

By Duncan Alexander8h ago

Ninety-four teams have been relegated from the English top flight from the 1992-93 season onwards, but only a special handful make it into the dismal pantheon that is The Worst Premier League Teams Of All Time.

It’s a collection that will soon include 2024-24 Sheffield United. Their season reached a new low on Monday night, with a 6-0 defeat by Arsenal that saw them become the first club in English league history to lose three consecutive home games by a margin of five or more goals. And let’s not forget their campaign also includes an 8-0 home defeat by Newcastle. Tell me a sad story in four words or less: The Bramall Lane scoreboard.

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But Sheffield United are not alone in experiencing league-table ghastliness. Name and season combinations like Swindon Town in 1993-94, Derby County in 2007-08, Queens Park Rangers in 2012-13, Huddersfield Town in 2018-19 and just the word ‘Sunderland’ dredge up memories of terrible teams, woeful managers, awful defeats and broken fanbases. Reaching the Premier League can be the greatest feeling of all. Departing it can be humiliating.

Working out who have actually been the worst team is a difficult task. Football didn’t start in 1992, but that year is a long time ago now and the sport is constantly evolving. Is it fair to compare a workmanlike Swindon team still getting used to the backpass law with a Sheffield United side who are clearly not very good, but who have still been able to spend many millions of pounds on the likes of Cameron Archer and Gustavo Hamer?

Maybe not, but let’s try anyway.

Points won

Points are the ultimate currency in a relegation battle, so if you have the record low total, like Derby in 2007-08, then a lot of people are going to be looking in your direction when the worst-team discourse kicks off. Eleven is how many players you should end a match with, not how many points you should end a season with.

Derby finished 2007-08 having not won any of their final 32 games, with manager Paul Jewell — who replaced Billy Davies, architect of Derby’s only win that season — collecting just five points in 24 matches. At the point of the season Sheffield United are at right now, Derby had nine points. Will Chris Wilder’s team add more than two in their 11 fixtures between now and the end of the campaign? You have to suspect they will.

Derby manager Paul Jewell in March 2008 (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Are there any mitigating factors for Derby, though? Well, a glance at the other end of the table reminds you that 2007-08 was in the middle of one of the strongest periods of the Premier League era. We are deep into the time of the ‘Big Four’ here, with Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea all making the semi-finals of the Champions League, and the latter two contesting the final. Derby clearly weren’t ready to compete in the top flight that season, but they did pick one of the most difficult times to make an entrance. Still, 11 points.

Sunderland should not avoid censure here, recording not one but two sub-20-point campaigns. Nineteen in a dire 2002-03 seemed bad enough, only for them to return three seasons later and pick up four fewer. They ended a three-manager 2002-03 season with a run of 15 consecutive defeats and then lost their first five in 2005-06 to extend it to 20 top-flight defeats in a row, a record that may never be beaten. And in a turn of events scientists have deemed ‘unlikely’, Sunderland led the Premier League for home defeats between 2002-03 and 2005-06, despite not being in the division for half of those four seasons.

Huddersfield’s turgid relegation in 2018-19 saw them win just 16 points, but was that really a surprise for a team who managed to climb from the third tier to the Premier League without ever recording a positive goal difference in their five seasons in the Championship, winning promotion to the top flight via two penalty shootouts and with one goal — an own-goal — scored in the three play-off ties?

Finally, Aston Villa’s total of 17 points in 2015-16 often gets overlooked due to Leicester City’s antics at the other end of the table, but it was a truly dismal effort.

This was a Premier League ever-present club who had been challenging for Champions League qualification a few years before, but who in this campaign went through three managers (the classic Tim Sherwood to Remi Garde to Eric Black succession plan), lost 11 games in the spring and even went two games without winning a corner in February.

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Villa led in matches for only 243 minutes during 2015-16 — the length of Star Wars movies A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back combined (which is possibly a more entertaining use of your time) – but unlike Sunderland and Sheffield United, they have since returned to the top flight in style, so that counts in their favour at least.

Goals conceded

You have to admire Swindon’s commitment to round numbers. With one game of 1993-94 remaining, the Wiltshire side had conceded 95 times. No top-flight side had let in 100 goals since Ipswich Town 30 years earlier, so everyone knew what they had to do. Leeds United turned up at the County Ground and promptly won 5-0, Swindon had their century and everyone moved on with their lives.

Swindon concede a league goal in 1993-94. Ninety-nine alternatives to this photo are available (Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images)

And after the Premier League reduced its schedule by four games to 38 from 1995-96, many concluded that we’d never see a three-figure goals-against column again. They teach defending now, you know.

But that was until this Sheffield United side turned up. (Aptly, one of Swindon’s reserve goalkeepers in 1993-94 was called Jon Sheffield — he conceded seven goals in the two games he played.)

If their 8-0 home defeat against Newcastle in September was a warning sign, then Sheffield United’s current run of defeats at Bramall Lane (5-0 to both Villa and Brighton & Hove Albion and 6-0 to Arsenal) is the vision of a team spiralling their way towards the record books.

Conceding 2.67 goals per 90 minutes is comfortably the highest rate ever seen in the Premier League era, making Swindon 1993-94 look like a lesson in catenaccio in comparison.

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It also means that — as it stands – Sheffield United are on course to concede 101 goals this season. From deepest Wiltshire to South Yorkshire, it’s news that will stun the nation if it happens.

Burnley 2024-24’s appearance in the above chart is telling, too.

The Premier League’s current bottom three are conceding at a record rate and the overall figure of 3.25 goals per game scored this season is the highest seen in the English top flight since the early 1960s. Perhaps that makes Sheffield United unlucky to turn up in the Premier League at this point with this team, but then it might make Burnley — who, let’s not forget, are level on points with this Sheffield United side — extremely fortunate. Vincent Kompany and, um, company are also embroiled in a mess of a campaign, but they might get away relatively lightly by sneaking along behind the team with substantially more egg on their shorts.

Plug Swindon’s or Derby’s goals conceded numbers into a season like this one and you might expect them to concede another 15-20 goals, but football doesn’t work like that and, more importantly, neither does remembering football’s worst teams. If Sheffield United reach three figures for goals-against this season, that is what will get shouted across pub tables and concourses for decades to come. And rightly so.

And the worst team are…

Raw numbers will only get you so far. There have been plenty of strugglers in the past 32 years who might not have the outright numbers of a Derby or a Sunderland or a Swindon, but who should still be recognised for services to ineptitude.

Norwich City, for example, who from 2018-19 to 2021-22 finished top of the Championship, bottom of the Premier League, top of the Championship again and bottom of the Premier League once more. Among relegation experts, their 2019-20 outfit are viewed as the inferior side, clocking up 27 defeats before being relegated, including losing all nine games in the hot, post-lockdown summer of Project Restart. That said, the 2021-22 Norwich team had only scored eight goals by Christmas, so wasn’t a classic XI by any means.

Then there’s Queens Park Rangers in 2012-13, managed initially by Mark Hughes before being guided through the January transfer window and beyond by Harry Redknapp. It took them 17 games to finally win before ending the season with two points from the final nine games and a Christopher Samba they didn’t need.

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That winless QPR run to start the season is no longer a Premier League record, if you were wondering. It was ‘beaten’ by our old friends Sheffield United in 2020-21, who had two points from 17 games before finally picking up their first three points in the January(!) against Newcastle. Not that it sparked a revival — they went down with six games still to play, another (joint) Premier League record.

And here’s the crux of the worst-team narrative: does what Sunderland did in the mid-2000s and Sheffield United are in the process of doing — that is, piece together two utterly terrible Premier League campaigns in the space of three years — trump Derby’s one 11-point season? Yes, it’s increasingly apparent that no side will ever go as low as 11 points again, but Derby at least have had the sense to never return.

Sheffield United’s dejected players against Arsenal on Monday (SportImage/Getty Images )

There’s something deeply unsatisfying about a team performing abjectly, then coming back soon after and doing exactly the same thing again. It feels like a waste of a season. It feels like you’ve been cheated out of variety.

So here’s the deal.

If Sheffield United continue to concede at their current rate and they break Swindon’s goals-against record, then add that to the 29 defeats of 2020-21 and whatever points total they manage in the next couple of months and announce it: the Premier League’s new worst-ever team.

Derby County of 2007-08, your redemption is finally here. Maybe.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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Before joining The Athletic Duncan worked at Opta for more than a decade, creating @OptaJoe in 2009 and @optaanalyst in 2020. He is the author of two books and convinced MOTD to start using expected goals. Follow Duncan on Twitter @oilysailor

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