What’s Gone Wrong at Sheffield United – Tactical Analysis (2020-21 Edition)

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Sheffield United were one of the most impressive sides in the Premier League last season, in their first season back in the top flight for over a decade. With overlapping centre-backs and a highly rigid 3-5-2 formation, Chris Wilder’s side were one of the most exciting and tactically intriguing sides to watch in 2019-20. With the fantastic performances of the squad as a whole, Sheffield United finish in 9th place last season, winning or drawing 26 of their 38 games. Perhaps most impressively of all, they conceded just 39 goals, the fourth lowest total in the league. After their fantastic performances, nobody would have expected them to struggle this badly in 2020-21. It could have been predicted that without Dean Henderson and Jack O’Connell they might compete in a relegation battle this time around, but nobody predicted them to be one of the worst sides in Premier League history. As things stand, Sheffield United are heading towards the lowest points total in the history of the league, and currently hold a Premier League record for longest winless run. Chris Wilder’s side have been bad to say the least, and this Tactical Analysis will attempt to uncover exactly what has gone wrong for the Blades this season. Here is our Tactical Analysis all about Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United in 2020-21.

To see their success story of last season, check out Chris Wilder – Sheffield United – Tactical Analysis (2019-20 Edition).

system of play: 3-5-2

Before getting into all the potential reasons for Sheffield United’s struggles this season, we must start this Tactical Analysis like any other, by taking a look at their formation and key personnel. This context will provide crucial information for the rest of the analysis.

Sheffield have operated in a 3-5-2/5-3-2 hybrid formation for the vast majority of the season, sticking to the system of play that served them so well last season. Aaron Ramsdale has struggled to live up to the boots of Dean Henderson, and looks destined for back-to-back relegations from the Premier League. Ahead of him, George Baldock and Enda Stevens have retained their places as the two wingbacks in the side, but have struggled to hit the same high notes in both attack and defense this season. Sheffield’s lower numbers in possession and just about every attacking category, mean that Baldock and Stevens’ chances created and number of crosses have spiraled down to all-time-lows. Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe have increasingly been given chances in the side to perform, but neither has fared much better than Baldock and Stevens. In between the wing-backs, Jack Robinson’s proved to be a relatively ineffective replacement for Jack O’Connell, while John Egan and Craig Basham have retained their places as part of the back-three. Ethan Ampadu’s played the bulk of his games as a defensive midfielder, although has played in the back-three from time to time as well.

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Along with Ampadu, Sander Berge and John Lundstram have been the preferred choices for Wilder in central midfield, although Ben Osborn, John Fleck and Oliver Norwood have all put up decent minutes so far in 2020-21. Fleck’s perhaps been the biggest shadow of his former self, and hasn’t recovered the stellar form he demonstrated pre-COVID. Up top, Wilder’s continued his rotation of the front two, relying on a host of different players to fix their lack of goals. David McGoldrick remains their top scorer with four, while Oliver McBurnie is probably Wilder’s second choice in that regard. Neither was a particularly deadly goal-scorer last season, and the additions of Oliver Burke and Rhian Brewster have looked a mile off pace. Both front-men have struggled to adapt to the Premier League, making it all the more confusing why Wilder and his staff have abandoned Lys Mousset, the club’s top scorer last season, as an option up front.

Sheffield have attempted to solve the issues that they’ve been having by a slight tweak in their formation on occasion, opting for a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1. This has worked just as ineffectively, and so perhaps Wilder should be looking to try out a four-man defense in the future, allowing another midfielder like John Fleck or John Lundstram to gain more playing time again. A 4-4-2 Diamond formation could allow Wilder’s team to achieve better spells of possession and midfield dominance, while also accommodating for the team’s lack of wingers. The Red and Whites really should be trying just about anything to fix their problems, rather than staying with the 3-5-2, and this would be the first thing we’d suggest.

lack of goals & creativity

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Although Sheffield United were the lowest scoring team to finish in the top ten last season, they were nowhere near this bad when it came to scoring goals. Their wing-backs were industrious, getting up and down the line to create chances for their team, while John Lundstram and John Fleck frequently got forward, knowing Oliver Norwood was prepared to clean up in behind. Wilder’s team have perhaps struggled this season as a result of an over-reliance on new additions, who haven’t added anything to the squad. Oliver Burke was one of the strangest signings they could have made, having scored 1 goal for Deportivo Alaves last season, and none for West Brom before that. Rhian Brewster showed promise for Swansea last season, but the Premier League is a different animal and the price tag was far too high for the Liverpool youngster. But how exactly have Sheffield struggled to score goals this season? Well beyond just the lack of forward runs from midfield, lack of possession, and lack of attacking creativity shown by their fullbacks, there’s been quite a few issues.

For starters, the club have become overly reliant on longer passes and the aerial presence of Oliver McBurnie, who’s been forced into competing for 12.8 aerial duels per game. This is the most in the league, despite Sheffield having worse possession statistics than all the teams who have players in and around that category. He’s won only 54% of the aerial duels he’s competed in, meaning nearly half of the time that Sheffield play these longer passes into McBurnie, they lose the ball. Although the Blades adopted a similar approach last season, it wasn’t to this extent and they attacked down the wings far more than this vertical long-ball approach that they’ve adopted this season. Eventually, Sheffield’s lack of a goal-scorer, and even a forward with a desire to shoot the ball, was going to catch up with them and it has this season. Considering they had 9.3 shots per game last season and scored 39 goals (1.03 per game), it could be that Sheffield United actually outperformed themselves in the scoring department last season, and they’ve got what they’ve deserved this time around. Given that their tally’s decreased to 8.4 per game, with 8 goals from 17 matches (0.47 per game), it’s easy to see why Sheffield are one of the worst sides the league has ever seen. David McGoldrick’s scored 50% of their goals, and most of their goals have been scored from set-pieces or penalties. These two facts alone suggest that something’s seriously wrong with the way Sheffield United create chances. One of the many compounding issues to the lack of chance creation, has been their lack of possession.

problems in possession

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Last season, Oliver Norwood was a driving force for the Blades in possession. Wilder’s team weren’t brilliant with the ball, but they were perhaps more effective at getting the most out of their possession. This season, Norwood’s been replaced by the more defensive Ethan Ampadu, who hasn’t been anywhere near as influential at the heart of the Blades’ midfield, particularly in possession of the ball.

In possession, Sheffield United have also become overly reliant on their right-side, without any output at all down the left. The Blades attacked down the right more than anyone in 2019-20, but they still had a lot going for them on the left with O’Connell pushing forward. O’Connell’s overlapping nature allowed Stevens and Fleck to cause a heap of disruption for opposing teams, due to their chaotic movements that contrasted what would normally be expected of players in their positions. The reliance on crossing from the right also meant that players like Fleck could venture forward and look to get on the end of crosses. They crossed the ball 23 times per game last season, the joint-third most in the league, compared to 19 times per game this season, the joint-ninth best in the league. That might not seem like a significant drop-off, but it certainly is, especially for their style of play. The fullbacks have been pinged into their own half far too often this season, and when they have ventured forward they haven’t looked as energetic and industrious. Their possession hasn’t been a whole lot worse than it was in 2019-20 and their actual pass percentage is up by 1%. So this more vertical approach with increased persistence on McBurnie’s presence in the air can be pointed to as partially responsible for the decrease in number of crosses, and also the decreased number of goals from central midfielders venturing into the box.

defensive issues

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The most obvious difference between Sheffield United of last season and this season is their defensive prowess, particularly in regards to their goalkeeper. Dean Henderson prevented a significant amount of shots going in last season, and was the top shot stopper in the league. Aaron Ramsdale hasn’t performed quite as well, and the side have dearly missed Henderson this season. Jack O’Connell has also been a miss, meaning Enda Stevens has left his position as a left-wing-back on occasion to fill in, and has done so very ineffectively. This also takes Stevens away from a creative role, where Max Lowe offers very little. The 25-year old is yet to register a cross or chance created this season and has been far more defensive than the Irishman.

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Further, their low to mid-block was fairly formidable last season, mostly 5-3-2 in shape, often cutting off passing angles before their opposition were able to get into the box. This season, Sheffield United are giving up significantly more passes into the box and final third than they were last season. Opposing teams are able to get the ball into dangerous areas to a far greater extent against them, and that’s led to 1.7 goals against per game, compared to 1.03 last season, the fourth lowest in the league. By comparison, Chelsea conceded 15 more goals in 2019-20 than Sheffield United, despite finishing five places higher. One reason for this is the lack of runs from midfield from players like John Fleck and John Lundstram, meaning United have had less possession in the opposition’s half. Another reason is the omissions of Norwood and O’Connell, where other players have struggled to fill in the gap. Whatever the reason, this has been Sheffield United’s biggest problem this season and one of the key reasons why they sit rooted to the bottom of the table.

how to fix the issues

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The first thing that we have to suggest for Chris Wilder’s team is to change shape and formation. The club haven’t been able to play with overlapping centre-backs or creative wing-backs to the same extent that they did last season, so it makes little sense to persist with the 3-5-2. This is especially true if Jack O’Connell, who was highly influential to that system of play last season, remains injured. The club should first and foremost look to adopting a formation with a four-man defense, increasing the number of players they have further up the pitch.

Our suggestion would be to play 4-4-2 Diamond, accommodating for the Blades’ lack of natural wingers in the side. One of the problems with the 3-4-3 has been that it’s only pushed players like Rhian Brewester and David McGoldrick away from goal, and meant that the striker becomes very isolated in most stages of the game. The front-two is not necessarily the issue for the Blades and proved relatively effective at scoring goals within their style of play last season. Without that style of play though, Wilder should be looking to tweak the formation to accommodate the front-two, rather than tweak the formation to get away from the front-two. Oliver Norwood, John Lundstram and John Fleck should all be given more playing time again, as the club’s form went down after the arrival of Sander Berge and has been even worse now that Ethan Ampadu’s been a favoured choice ahead of Norwood. Norwood will help the team keep better possession of the ball, and having him sit at the base of a midfield diamond should allow Lundstram and Fleck to get forward more often, as they did last season. Given the midfielder’s intelligent movement and decent form in front of goal in 2019-20, John Fleck could also be a decent option in the ‘number 10’ position, if Wilder wanted to stick to Sander Berge as a member of the eleven. From there, if the team were to stick to their reliance on longer passes (relative to their possession of course), Ollie McBurnie would have more numbers to nod the ball down to, and the fullbacks would also have more numbers in the box to get on the end of their crosses. A ‘number 10’ should be one area Sheffield United look to in the January transfer window, especially if they are looking to explore different formations. Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard would be an excellent choice for the role, although that seems unlikely.

It’s quite easy to say that Sheffield United should be looking to the January Transfer Window as a potential source of relief. But Wilder’s team will likely find it nearly impossible to convince anyone to join, or convince the board to spend money when the side look destined to go down. Securing inexpensive loans look like just about the only real option for the Blades at this time. Jesse Lingard seems like an obvious target, since he is yet to feature in the Premier League this season. Divock Origi could be another top name on the list, although these players might have more expensive wages than Sheffield United are prepared to pay at this moment. Billy Gilmour of Chelsea could be a cheaper choice and a step up from Ampadu, although the Blues might be reluctant to loan United another one of their players, decreasing the amount of minutes for Ampadu in the process. Perhaps Tottenham’s Joe Rodon or Carlos Vinicius might help, although both are also unproven at Premier League level and could help Mourinho’s Europa League fight. This is all to say that Sheffield United have a massive job on their hands in this summer’s transfer window. They likely won’t be able to afford better players who might actually help their case, and players from other leagues looking for a permanent move to the Premier League probably won’t have the Blades on their radar, due to their tally of 2 points from 17 games. In truth, there is very little Chris Wilder’s side can do in the transfer window this January, and as difficult as it will be, they should probably stick to looking for solutions from within their own squad.

concluding thoughts

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No team in the history of the league has accumulated fewer points at this stage in the competition than Sheffield United. Draws to Fulham and Brighton have meant very little in their fight for survival, as they continue to struggle to score goals and keep them out going the other way. Key players of last season like Jack O’Connell and Dean Henderson have been missed, but every single player has suffered from a dip in form this season, causing Chris Wilder’s shot-shy team to develop a reputation as one of the worst in Premier League history. Very little can be done in the transfer window to fix their issues at both ends of the pitch, and the Blades will instead have to find solutions from within in order to ensure it doesn’t go from bad to worse this season.

So there it is! What has gone wrong for Sheffield United this season. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses, including our recent article all about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s potential title-challenging Manchester United. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

You might also enjoy…
-> Chris Wilder – Sheffield United – Tactical Analysis (2019-20 Edition)
-> Overlapping Centre-Backs – Tactical Analysis
-> 3 Ways To Play 3-5-2


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