Sheffield United have been the surprise package not only in the Premier League in 2019-20, but arguably anywhere in Europe’s top five leagues. The recently promoted side went from 2nd place finishers in the 2018-19 EFL Championship to one of the most resilient Premier League sides in 2019-20, currently sitting in 7th place in the table with a game in hand. Chris Wilder meanwhile has gone from a manager virtually unknown, to one of the most celebrated in European football this year. His 3-5-2 system of play has been consistently one of the most well-set-up systems in the Premier League this season and every single player just seems to fit into it like a puzzle that has come together better than anyone could have dreamed of. Here is a tactical analysis of Chris Wilder’s robust 3-5-2 formation and style of play with Sheffield United.
* To see how things went so wrong for Sheffield United in 2020-21, see What’s Gone Wrong at Sheffield United – Tactical Analysis (2020-21 Edition)
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-5-2
Sheffield United operate in a 3-5-2 formation. Although midfielders John Lundstram and John Fleck have more license to get forward than Oliver Norwood, the system operates as more of a flat 3-5-2, rather than a 3-1-4-2 or 3-4-1-2. Although a recently promoted side, Sheffield United play a possession-based style of football, favouring shorter passes and somewhat revolutionary methods of switching play. Despite having a strong midfield three, only 19% of their possession in the attacking half comes in the middle of the pitch, compared to 42% on the right side and 39% on the left side. As a result, wing-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens are absolutely crucial to their team. The back-three in front of Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson have remained relatively consistent. John Egan, Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham have only missed 1 Premier League match between the three of them, forming an essential trio at the back that has carried over from their days in the EFL Championship. In between the industrious wing-backs of Stevens and Baldock, vice-captain Oliver Norwood fulfills the number ‘6’ role in front of the back-line. John Lundstram and John Fleck play slightly advanced in front of him and are currently tied for the second highest goal contribution (goals + assists) of any Sheffield player with 7 each. The front two meanwhile have been the most frequently changed of any position in Chris Wilder’s team. Although Oliver McBurnie and Lys Mousset have been the most frequent appearance-makers, David McGoldrick is the one who has started the most matches. Out of possession, Wilder’s 3-5-2 becomes a very compact and resilient 5-3-2, which will be analyzed heavily in a later section of this article.
PLAY-MAKING CENTRE-BACKSEmbed from Getty Images
From the early days of the 2019-20 Premier League season, Sheffield United’s use of “overlapping centre-backs” has been the most popular discourse surrounding their team’s style of play. Assistant manager Alan Knill has been frequently praised for this tactical innovation, but Wilder’s understanding of this tactic and the players best suited for the role also deserves an immense amount of credit. When Sheffield United were in League One, they had to find innovative ways for breaking down the opposition, as a result of opposing teams sitting back and defending in numbers against them (Wilson, 2019). Knill reasoned that since the centre-backs did not have to do an awful lot of defending, that they could be used to create an overload in possession of the ball in wide areas instead (Wilson, 2019). Remarkably, this tactic has now carried on into the Premier League, despite Sheffield no longer being afforded as much time in possession. O’Connell and Basham are both very talented ball-playing centre-halves and their role in possession has been key not only in their own half, but in the opposition’s half as well. As O’Connell and Basham come high and wide, the wing-backs will either stay wide to assist in the overload, or drift in field to expand the midfield. Under normal intuition, you might expect this to be very routine. The near-sided fullback stays wide, as the far-sided fullback tucks in. But this is not always the case. In fact, it is actually more commonly the other way around, as the far-sided wing-back will remain wide for a switch of play, and the near-sided wing-back will drift inside, taking up a more central position than the central defender. This is where the term “overlapping centre-backs” was born.Embed from Getty Images
Although this tactic of a wide-centre-back seems almost absurd, it has worked for Sheffield United on every level and has provided them with one of the most brilliant tactical innovations of the season. As O’Connell and Basham get higher up the pitch, the opposition wingers or attacking midfielders are forced to track back. If they don’t, Wilder’s team will easily have an overload on at least one side of the field, if not both. If the opponents track back and succeed in winning the ball, they’ve only won it in their own half and still have a long way to go before they can effectively counter attack. This is one of the key reasons why the Blades are so difficult to break down.
DEFENSIVE RESILIENCEEmbed from Getty Images
Much has been analyzed about Sheffield United in possession and attack this season, but what has somehow become an understated part of their success this season has been their defensive resilience. The Blades have conceded just 25 goals in their 28 matches this season and Henderson is currently tied for second in clean sheets with Alisson Becker, only behind Burnley’s Nick Pope. Wilder’s men have had on average just 44% of the possession in their matches this season, despite being a top-half team from literally the first game of the season. This highlights how although they are a possession-based team rather than one that sits back, wins possession and goes on the break for a counter attack, they are perfectly happy to sit back and defend. When they do gain possession, they favour a slower build-up with their centre-backs, wing-backs and central midfielders playing an instrumental role.Embed from Getty Images
As one would expect, in defense United’s tactically innovative 3-5-2 formation becomes a very compact 5-3-2 formation. Stevens and Baldock tuck in alongside the three-centre-backs as the midfield trio become a very tough unit to break down. Fleck and Lundstram are capable of covering a lot of ground, and frequently pop up in wide areas during spells out of possession. Their ability to shift quickly with the play and bend their shape to cut off passing options in both wide and central areas allows the Blades the opportunity to win the ball back higher up than a team of their stature might normally resort to. The strikers meanwhile are responsible for cutting off passing lanes in central areas, rather than racing their heart out to press the opposition defenders. This makes United excruciatingly difficult to break down in central areas, forcing the opposition out wide, where they also have plenty of cover and steel. The lack of a high press and the stern shape that they deploy makes Sheffield’s defensive system very much a mid to low block and is certainly a massive reason for their defensive solidity in the league this season. 25 goals conceded in just 28 matches makes them the second best in that regard in the league, behind only the league leaders and soon-to-be champions Liverpool.
WHERE DO THE GOALS COME FROM?Embed from Getty Images
At the other end of the pitch, Sheffield United are not the most flamboyant team in the league. Their success this season is remarkable in many ways. But one of the most staggering aspects to their success is what they have achieved without a recognized goal-scorer. David McGoldrick and Billy Sharp both hit double figures in the Championship last season, but their top scorer in the league this season has been a tie between central midfielder John Fleck and Bournemouth outcast Lys Mousset, both on five. Their defensive resilience has simply meant that they haven’t necessarily needed a striker to hammer in the goals. Most of their games this season have been won by a single goal difference, and many of them have been 1-0 or 2-0 victories.Embed from Getty Images
Although not the greatest of goal scorers, Sheffield’s ability to create overloads in wide areas affords them many different options when attacking in the final third. The energetic George Baldock and Enda Stevens are responsible for a lot the chance creation in attack, making runs from deep with or without the ball before crossing it in or dragging it back for the central midfielders. According to WhoScored? (2020), they average 24 crosses per game, slightly favouring the right-hand side of Basham, Lundstram and Baldock to deliver those crosses. John Fleck has become an expert at timing his runs in the box, while forwards like McGoldrick and Mousset often make shadow runs to open up space for other players. Realistically 27 goals in 28 matches is not the most impressive statistic, but it becomes more impressive given that United sit 7th in the table, and have spent large parts of the season hovering in between 5th and 6th. They are not the most potent of attacking outfits, but they certainly have a uniquely designed attacking style that has troubled even the best of teams in the league this season, such as Manchester City.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTSEmbed from Getty Images
Sheffield United have been one of the surprise packages of the 2019-20 Premier League season. But they’ve achieved success this season playing a style of football that one would not expect from a recently promoted team. Their overlapping centre-backs have been a revelation in the Premier League this season, but their defensive resilience to win the ball-back higher up the field without a high press likely deserves even more attention than the much talked about innovation. Although they’ve scored less than a goal per game, the Blades remain firmly in the top half of the table and could finish well within a place in the Europa League next season. That would be an absolutely astonishing achievement from a side who have only just come up from the EFL Championship. Sheffield United are certainly a tactically innovative outfit who have performed to miraculous heights this season, and their manager Chris Wilder and assistant manager Alan Knill deserve an immense of credit for their success.
So there it is! A tactical analysis all about Sheffield United. The Blades look set to be in the Premier League for longer than many might have thought and undoubtedly could be set for more tactical innovations in the future. Be sure to check out more from our Tactics section, including our recently published analysis of Wolverhampton Wanderers and their manager Nuno Espirito Santo. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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