The Football Notebook
How Sheffield United is Challenging for Europe
Judged to be relegation favourites before the 2019/20 season, Sheffield United has surprised fans around the world.
With United coming off a disappointing 11th place finish in League One, boyhood fan Chris Wilder took over as manager in 2016, bringing along his assistant Alan Knill who is considered one of the most tactically innovative number twos in the game.
With the club entering their sixth consecutive season in England’s third division, a lot of pressure was on Wilder and Knill to deliver.
And so they did.
In his first season, the Blades racked up 100 points in the 46-game season, beating second-place Bolton by 16 points. This secured them the League One title and promotion into the championship.
However, this wasn’t the main goal for Sheffield’s Saudi owners who took over the club in 2013 - they wanted the Blades back in English’s top flight. Wilder would only need two seasons in the championship to bring United to where the fans thought they belonged, finishing in second place - a considerable 6 points above Leeds United to gain a guaranteed place in next season’s Premier League.
Now in the top flight, they have turned many heads, currently challenging for a place in Europe next season. But what makes this Sheffield side so effective? And how can a newly promoted team challenge the established top six clubs in England?
Sheffield United’s defensive shape usually resembles a 5-3-2 formation with a solid block of five defenders, a passive mid-block of three central midfielders and two forwards.
Sheffield’s defence, along with any other good defence in the league, begins with their two strikers. They aim to cut out passing lanes between the opposition’s defenders and their midfielders. Chris Wilder wants his attackers to be intelligent while pressing defenders; If they over-commit and get dragged out of position it allows the opposition to easily exploit overloads and bypass Sheffield’s first line of defence. Oli Mcburnie and Lys Mousset who both signed during the summer are trusted to play this role. They are both young, and at just 23 and 24 respectively bring lots of energy and pace to Sheffield’s defensive needs.
The Blades’ passive mid-block is usually very compact, especially when playing against quality sides. Central midfielders will shift behind the two forwards based on the positioning of the ball in the field of play to maintain cover. Considering the lack of a high-press, the gap between all three lines remains compact. This forces sides to play through the mid-block instead of over it, as there is less space behind the three central midfielders. The fact that the Blades also have three central defenders gives them an advantage when dealing with long balls. Sheffield’s three centre midfielders are brilliant defensively and have the ability to move quickly to the touchline to aid the wing-backs or position themselves in intelligent positions centrally to block penetrating passes. Oliver Norwood, signed in January 2019 for around £2 million, fully encapsulates Chris Wilder’s vision for the perfect defensive midfielder. His fantastic ability to cut out passing lanes is shown through his 38 interceptions in the Prem, 12th amongst midfielders this season.
Sheffield United’s 5-man defensive block is what solidifies them as one of the best defensive teams in the league. Just like the first 2 lines, Wilder likes his defensive block to be very compact both vertically and horizontally. Vertical compactness allows for dangerous playmakers to be afforded little time and space, while horizontal compactness forces play out wide where it is less of a danger to Sheffield’s goal. As mentioned before, they are a commanding presence in the air and discourage opponents from playing long balls through to their strikers. They intend to clog the middle while defending aggressively at the flanks, using a pass out wide as a trigger to press. The wing-backs will force the opposition’s wingers down the touchline pressurising the winger into crossing the ball and taking a gamble, and with 3 centre-backs in the penalty area, the chance of one of those crosses connecting is unlikely.
All these elements together are what makes Sheffield United a defensive powerhouse in the Premier League. They have conceded the 2nd fewest goals this season which shows the tactical ingenuity of Wilder to adapt his side to higher levels of competition, explaining why they were so quick to move back up to the premiership from League One.
When attacking, Sheffield’s 5-3-2 transitions to a 3-5-2 formation and this is where the tactical innovation most synonymous with Sheffield United is put into play, the 'overlapping centre-backs'.
There are similarities between this United side and Louis Van Gaal’s Barcelona of the late 90s. Van Gaal’s ideology was at least one centre-back had to be a playmaker as it is the outfield position that is offered the most time, it has been observed that the centre-backs of that Barca side would often carry the ball up the pitch making this idea of overlapping centre backs not as outlandish as it seems.
Back when the Blades were in the championship, Wilder observed that they had some struggles breaking down very compact and deep teams, they would find it challenging to create scoring opportunities. Therefore creating the overlapping centre-backs.
The overall aim of this tactical innovation is to create overloads in the attacking third. Instead of centre-backs going up the pitch through the centre like Van Gaal’s philosophy, they attack into wide areas, with John Egan staying back to act as the offensive cover. This gives opposition strikers a tough decision to make, they can either trackback making their counter-attacks less effective or stay upfield and risk their team to be overloaded. This permits the wing-backs to either stay out wide to help with the overload or drift centrally to help bulk up the midfield. Chris Basham, who was a defensive midfielder during the start of his career, is perfect for this role.
This helps Sheffield United easily overpower one side of the field with at least one striker, a wing-back, a centre midfielder and a centre-back supporting the flanks they can easily create those 2v1 situations.
Wing-backs would make intelligent runs, cutting in centrally or out wide to create space for those behind them. Decoy runs like these causes the opposition’s defensive structure to be altered leaving small gaps of space either in front or behind. Given the number of players Sheffield has in the offensive third they can easily take advantage of the gaps to get in a dangerous shooting or crossing position.
Wilder’s tactics are based on the premise that players should do what is least expected. Just like centre-backs getting on the ball deep inside the opposition’s half, he encourages players to do what the opposition wouldn’t usually expect.
In conclusion, Sheffield United have made leaps and bounds since Wilder has taken over in 2016. Their creative and innovative style of play is the reason why they have adapted brilliantly to life in the Premier League. The unexpected and almost random style of offence makes it difficult for opposition sides to prepare for; This, matched with their organised defence creates an attractive and effective way to play the game. Their perfect mix of youth, with the likes of Mousset and Henderson, and experience, veterans like Basham and Sharp, can hopefully help them claim their first spot in European football and continue what has been a surreal journey so far.