Sheffield United − the Premier League’s latest tactical revolutionaries

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With a squad dominated by British- and Irish-born players who have spent the majority of their careers in the Football League, a 51-year-old Yorkshireman as manager and a ground first constructed in 1855, you’d be forgiven for expecting Sheffield United to play functional football in the hope of maintaining their newfound status as a Premier League club.

Without Norwich City’s supposed mini-Klopp for a manager and Aston Villa’s substantial transfer spending, the Blades may first appear, through no fault of their own, as a plucky, unfashionable side who have somehow stumbled into the bigtime and will soon stumble their way out of it.

That misconception, however, belies the targeted recruitment and tactical innovations that have propelled a team of presumed no-hopers from the bottom of League One to the Premier League in just three years.

After an eleventh-placed finish in League One in 2015/16, lifelong supporter Chris Wilder ­− fresh off the back of winning League Two with Northampton Town ­− was appointed manager in May 2016.

And, despite losing youngsters Che Adams, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Aaron Ramsdale to Birmingham City, Everton and AFC Bournemouth respectively, he delivered what had evaded previous managers Nigel Clough and Nigel Adkins with a title-winning campaign at the first time of asking.

A tenth-placed finish in the Championship the following season, which had for much of it looked more likely to end somewhere in the play-offs, was trumped by last season’s promotion-winning campaign.

The strength of the Blades’ recruitment team, headed by Wilder appointee Paul Mitchell, and of Wilder’s ability to get the best out of his players is reflected by the fact that much of their current squad, and indeed starting eleven, remains refreshingly unchanged from the club’s time in League One and the Championship.

Club captain Billy Sharp, who has scored ninety goals since returning to his boyhood club in 2015, and centre-half Chris Basham, who joined from Blackpool in 2014 and has started all four Premier League matches so far this season, both pre-date Wilder’s arrival at the club, whilst the likes of Jack O’Connell, John Fleck, Mark Duffy and Leon Clarke, all of whom played key roles in both promotion-winning seasons, joined in 2016 for a combined sum of less than £1m.

Upon their return to the Championship in 2017, George Baldock (c. £600k from MK Dons), John Lundstram (c. £500k from Oxford United) and Enda Stevens (free from Portsmouth), were among those brought in. All are still with the club and playing significant roles ­− Lundstram scored the first Premier League goal at Bramall Lane for fifteen years in United’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace in gameweek two, whilst Stevens and Baldock have played every minute of every league game so far.

The following season, even after David Brooks was sold to AFC Bournemouth for a significant fee of approximately £10m, Wilder, Mitchell and Co. remained vigilant and value-oriented in their transfer dealings and managed to improve the squad as a whole while still making a substantial net profit.

David McGoldrick joined on a free transfer from Ipswich Town and goalkeeper Dean and central midfielder Olly Norwood signed on loan from Manchester United and Brighton and Hove Albion respectively. The latter made the move permanent in January for almost £2m.

Although John Egan’s arrival from Gillingham for a fee of around £4m (as well as Norwood’s transfer to a certain extent) somewhat broke the uber-cheap trend seen up until then, the Blades’ total outlay was minimal in comparison to almost all of their promotion rivals and, with all four appearing in all four league games so far this season, these signings have all remained key players after promotion to the top flight despite significant investment in the playing squad.

The average positions of Sheffield United’s starting eleven from their first game of the season away at AFC Bournemouth. Underscored players first signed for the club during or before the summer of 2018 (all of which except for Norwood and Egan were for six figure sums).

Similarly eye-catching to what the Blades do in terms of off-the-pitch recruitment is what they do in terms of on-the-pitch innovation. An important figure who has undeservedly not been mentioned thus far is Alan Knill, Wilder’s assistant manager and close confidant.

During 2018/19, a season where Marcelo Bielsa’s reputation and Daniel Farke’s links to Borussia Dortmund and Jürgen Klopp forced awareness of tactical fiddling elsewhere in the Championship under the radar, Knill and Wilder’s own iconoclastic reforms ­− as first seen in League One ­− worked to great effect in the Steel City.

United set up in a 3-4-1-2 with three centre-halves (two as roaming ball-players and one as a stopper), two Conte-esque box-to-box wing-backs, two centre midfielders, a No. 10 in the hole and two out-and-out strikers up front.

Their transitional play depended primarily on three positions. First, the No. 10 ­− usually Mark Duffy ­− buzzed between the central midfield pivot and the striking partnership to link and spread the play or finish attacking moves from long-distance. Second, the wing-backs ­− almost always Baldock and Stevens ­− bombed up and down the flanks to create overloads in both attacking and defensive scenarios.

The most interesting aspect of this comes third, however. United’s two outer centre-halves ­− typically Basham and O’Connell ­− would overlap their wing-backs (who were themselves responsible for overlapping) whenever either Baldock or Stevens settled on the ball. To cover the space vacated by the overlapping centre-half, the centre midfielder closest to the ball would take the wing-back position and the rest of midfield and defence would shift across.

This style of play, though risky and incredibly physically exerting, was executed to perfection and ensured thrilling edge-of-your-seat football.

This graphic shows the average positions of the Blades’ starting eleven (with their starting positions in brackets on the right) from their first home game of the season against Crystal Palace. Similar advanced positioning was ever-present during the club’s two seasons in the Championship, but with the left and right centre midfielders (No. 7 and 4 respectively) positioned slightly further backwards and the deep-lying midfielder (No. 16) in front of them as an attacking midfielder.

And although the Blades have adopted a more conservative approach upon promotion (with a false winger/inside forward operating as one of the attacking two and a deep-lying midfielder taking the place of the attacking midfielder), the underlying tactical mantra remains the same: superiority in terms of both numbers and quality of chances is to be achieved in both attack and defence as often and as quickly as possible by means of positional rotation, freedom and combination, primarily on the flanks.

It comes as no revelation, therefore, that no Premier League team has started their attacks higher up the pitch than Sheffield United this season, whose average possession start in metres from their own goal (50) is higher than, among others, Liverpool (48), Manchester City (47), Chelsea (46) and Arsenal (45).

In defence, United’s wing-backs tuck in to form a flat back five. The central midfield trio, now staggered with the deep-lying midfielder slightly behind the other two centre midfielders, moves horizontally across the pitch in front of the defence in an effort to limit goalscoring opportunities in the centre of the park and force the opposition to attack from the flanks through crosses. When these are delivered, the idea is that the three domineering centre-halves will easily clear the danger.

Even though this patient defensive approach allows considerable physical respite, retaining such a rigid shape whilst being aware of opposition movement requires remarkable focus and concentration. Similarly, getting into that rigid shape in the first place when your wing-backs and centre-halves have just been gallivanting high up the pitch is no mean physical feat, either.

As such, their system demands immense physical and mental fitness from all its participants. It remains to be seen whether they can keep it up for a full Premier League season alongside cup commitments but, if they could do it for two consecutive Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday Championship seasons, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if they do.

This xT (expected threat) heatmap courtesy of analyst Karun Singh (@karun1710 on Twitter) highlights the Blades’ utilisation of the flanks and Chelsea’s subsequent focus on the centre of the park in Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge. Expected threat (or xT) measures the percentage chance of an action (i.e. a shot, pass or dribble) resulting in a goal, whether that be immediately or after other actions. Singh’s xT heatmap transplants the expected threat of all of a team’s actions during a game onto a map of the pitch and therefore shows the areas of the pitch (those with the brightest colours) which were used most often in said team’s attacking sequences, regardless of whether these sequences resulted in a goal or not.

As we’ve reached the first international break of the season, the embryonic Premier League table has United in 8th place, above the likes of Chelsea, Spurs and Wolves. Wilder’s side have beaten Crystal Palace and drawn with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. They’ve scored in every game this season and since the start of the 2016/17 campaign, Wilder has won 77 league matches as United boss. Only Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola ­− with 88 victories ­− has won more in that time.

All that, and BBC Football Focus pundit Garth Crooks nonetheless says “they’re going to struggle. They lack potency upfront and quite frankly, I think their style of football is quite basic for the Premier League.”

Perhaps, if Wilder was a turtleneck-wearing, espresso-supping multi-linguist who had previously been an assistant manager or youth coach at a trendy European club, what him, his staff and his players have built on and off the pitch at Bramall Lane would receive the praise it is more than deserving of.

Main image by IJA via Creative Commons

One thought on “Sheffield United − the Premier League’s latest tactical revolutionaries

  • Odd it takes a genius like Wilder to show the tactical way for the big boys.
    Maybe the top guys rely on money more than tactical
    Play and when it comes to tactics build the tactics round the multi million pound players they have bought rather than opposit with Sheffield United.
    Good luck to them bringing a refreshing angle to tactics in the premiership.

    Reply

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