“I’m not pleased with effort because that is just a bog-standard thing for me. Cheers for effort doesn’t tick a box for me,” bemoaned Chris Wilder after his Sheffield United players were clapped off the pitch in a 2-1 defeat to Leicester City. The Blades manager was clearly frustrated with his side’s first loss of the season back in August, but it’s a sign of how he has set the standards so high at Bramhall Lane over the last three years.
When he took over three years ago, Sheffield United were struggling in League One. It was nearly ten years since they had been in the Premier League, but the boyhood Sheffield United supporter set about getting his club back to the top flight of English football.
As most had expected, the Blades are the bookies’ favourites to be relegated this season. Despite an impressive 2018/19 campaign in the Championship which saw them gain automatic promotion, Wilder’s men are tipped to go straight back down. However, with a challenging start including Chelsea, Leicester City, AFC Bournemouth and Crystal Palace, five points indicate a better start than many had expected.
Brief introduction of Wilder’s Blades
To understand how Wilder’s system works at Bramhall Lane, we need to first contextualise the use of their 3-5-2 formation.
In short, the 3-5-2 formation primarily allows the Blades to work with two strikers without sufficient strain on midfield areas. Such a partnership in attack – as shown below with Oli McBurnie and Callum Robinson – looks to provide a constant threat to the opposition’s defence as well as add defensive support from the front.
Whilst all aspects of this system is important, the three central midfielders are crucial to setting the tone of the play. For Sheffield United, this requires three midfielders with high work-rate and acute positional awareness.
Overall, 3-5-2 is a formation that demands high work-rate from each position. For the Blades, this plays into their hands given their personnel. But, above all else, it must be stated that it is a technical formation that relies on Wilder communicating well with each of his players.
The following sections will look at how Wilder and his players have successfully implemented the system already this season.
Defensive style of play
As newcomers to the Premier League, Sheffield United are acutely aware of the fact that they will see less of the ball than they did in the Championship. The increase in technical attributes in the Premier League dictates that Wilder’s men will have to be defensively sound when out of possession.
Below, we see that they are relatively comfortable without the ball. As shown here against Chelsea, a compact midfield and rigid defensive line makes it hard for the opposition to break down the defence. As a key benefit of the 3-5-2 formation, Wilder’s side is able to get players behind the ball with two solid blocks of defence.
The structure above illustrates the Blades are effective when in their own defensive third, but they also successfully implement a defensive unit slightly higher up the pitch.
This is shown, below, with a compact midfield three that puts pressure on the player in possession. In this case, Freeman, Norwood and Lundstram are seen pressing the Chelsea player in possession whilst keeping a solid structure between the three of them.
As a system, this compact midfield trio has worked well for the Blades so far this season. Protecting the back three is the primary role for the midfield. And, given that they have conceded just five goals so far this season, Wilder has an effective system in place that can deal with Premier League quality opposition.
Industrious teams like Sheffield United can often be mislabelled as ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘hard-working.’ Yes, they are both of the above. But, most crucially, their work-rate is combined with a strategic pressing game that deserves sufficient analysis.
It’s a cliché to say that every team promoted to the Premier League needs to be enthusiastic or hard-working. Of course, you need to apply yourself to the best of your ability, but it’s primarily about doing it in the right areas.
Wilder’s men are hard-working, yes, but it’s the strategy in which he channels his player’s energies that is most impressive. Below, we see a method of pressing high up the pitch that is not often associated with relegation contenders. Having already discussed their efficient defensive unit, we could expect Sheffield United to employ the strategy of 11 men behind the ball. However, here, it is clear that they won’t be parking the bus anytime soon.
Given the aggressive nature of the high-pressing, it is imperative that those pressing are able to win possession. As shown several times already this season, the above example versus Chelsea highlights the way in which Sheffield United do it so well. With two strikers, a wing-back and central midfielder all involved in this particular example, Wilder has been able to regiment his players into a system that has high rewards.
To add to the strategic high-press, the use of two strikers in the 3-5-2 formation enables them to set the tempo of the pressing system. Below, we see Robinson and David McGoldrick putting pressure on Bournemouth’s defenders high up the pitch. Such a strategy looks to forces mistakes from the opposition and put the attacking team in a goal-scoring position.
Overall, Sheffield United’s strategic pressing game is based on enthusiasm and effort, but don’t let that take away from its technicalities. Much work will be done on the training ground each week to make sure that the pressing game is executed accurately. Whether it is through the two strikers setting the tempo of the press, or midfielders backing it up, Wilder’s team deserve credit for their bold approach so far this season.
Creating goal-scoring opportunities
So far, we have discussed how Sheffield United are able to defend against teams. But we need to look at how they are able to create chances for themselves. They have scored five goals in four games so far this season, hitting the back of the net in all of their league matches.
Despite the step-up in opposition, Wilder has stuck to his principles this season and looked to attack teams directly. This is primarily through the use of two strikers in the attack that occupies defenders and looks to beat them on the turn. We see this tactic, below, versus Bournemouth on the opening day of the season.
Whilst in possession, Ender Stevens has several options in attacking positions. These include three attackers hanging on the last line of defence. Such a strategy looks to directly penetrate Bournemouth’s backline and attack the goal.
Again, this is a bold approach by Wilder given that a loss of possession will see a number of players out of position. However, the emphasis in attack is a key reason why he has been able to resurrect the club from the third division of English football.
The strategy of playing one striker is a key aspect of Sheffield United’s play in order to create goal-scoring opportunities. Robinson’s goal against Chelsea, less than a minute into the second half, shows that there are real benefits of playing this system.
As shown above, Stevens has two good options in the penalty area to create a goal-scoring opportunity. Having made an impressive start to life in the Premier League, Stevens delivers an accurate pass into the danger area (red) for Robinson to finish first time.
Given that the Blades don’t have a large amount of money to spend on high quality attacking players, this system is useful in providing chances to those who show effort to get into dangerous areas. As a result, Robinson, McBurnie, etc. should see a number of goal-scoring opportunities this season.
Role of the wing-backs
In any 3-5-2 system, the role of the wing-backs is crucial. Whether you see them more as defenders or attackers, their primary aim is to provide width in every aspect of player. For Wilder, the use of George Baldock and Stevens is crucial to the system.
Both of Sheffield United’s wing-backs have been influential to the team’s success in the early stage of the season. But what we need to understand is that the wing-backs are most crucial to the team’s attacking output. Below, we see that Baldock’s width is able to provide support to Norwood who seeks to find a decisive pass.
The eventual cross from Baldock is delivered perfectly onto the head of McBurnie who fires home the equaliser for the Blades. Given the aerial presence in the box for United, the continued width of the full-backs is crucial to enable delivery into the box.
Whilst their delivery will not be as accurate on every occasion, McBurnie’s goal versus Leicester City shows that the width of the wing-backs is useful in creating goal-scoring opportunities. This, combined with the presence of two strikers in the penalty area, is one of the Blades’ most potent threats in attack.
So far this season we have seen Sheffield United cause several teams serious problems. Their opening four fixtures have contained a number of challenging teams but it would be fair to say that they have impressed in each of their matches.
In an effective 3-5-2 formation, each cog of Sheffield United’s system is equally important. The use of two strikers looks to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the system, given that very few Premier League teams play with two strikers. However, such a strategy has already reaped the rewards this season.
The standards set by Wilder at Bramhall Lane suggest that this is just the start for the Blades who look to beat the drop this season. If they are to do so, it will be through bold tactics in both attack and defence that directly threaten their opposition.
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