Sheffield United travelled to Tottenham this past Saturday for their Premier League match, where they played to a 1-1 draw. The context surrounding this game is interesting, with Sheffield United ahead of Spurs in the Premier League standings. Spurs, having just come off a Champions League win against Red Star Belgrade last week, needed a strong result before the international break to better their position in the Premier League. This tactical analysis will show that throughout this game, Mauricio Pochettino made multiple tactical adjustments as they tried to solve Sheffield United’s incredibly difficult defensive scheme.
With injuries on the backline, Pochettino started with his usual 4-2-3-1. Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez started at centre-back, with Ben Davies at right fullback and Serge Aurier at left fullback. Tanguy Ndombele and Moussa Sissoko were the two defensive midfielders, with Deli Alli in front of them as the attacking midfielder. Heung-Min Son, Harry Kane, and Giovani Lo Celso complete the Spurs’ line-up at left wing, centre forward, and right wing, respectively.
Sheffield United and manager Chris Wilder started in their traditional 3-5-2 in attack which became a 5-3-2 out of possession. Jack O’Connell, John Egan, and Chris Basham started at left centre-back, centre-back, and right centre-back. George Baldock and Enda Stevens acted as the right and left wing-back. Oliver Norwood was the defensive midfielder, with John Lundstram and John Fleck next to him in central midfield. Lys Mousset and David Mcgoldrick fill out the lineup as United’s two forwards.
Sheffield United’s Approach and Defensive Shifting
After the first 10-15 minutes of the game, in which both teams largely played more direct to be able to identify the approach of their opponent, the Blades’ difficult 5-3-2 out of possession became a difficulty for Spurs to break down consistently.
This picture shows the tactics of United’s defence and how Spurs chose to line up against them. The two forwards were responsible for the defensive midfielder as well as the two centre-backs. The three central midfielders marked in their zones, taking away the three central corridors, while the two wing-backs stepped to Spurs’ highest and widest player when the ball was on their side. Spurs countered this with using two in the build-up with one pivot. They positioned Alli and Ndombele in between United’s three centre-midfielders to try to force them to hold their positions in central areas. Alli and Ndombele also searched for space between the lines to be a free man, and later in the game Alli was often successful in finding space to receive between the lines. Son, Kane, and Lo Celso would be responsible for pinning back the remaining back four when the near-side wing-back jumped up.
This next picture is directly following a transition moment where United struggled to get back into defensive position quickly. Spurs have a central overload, and Alli was able to find space between United’s forwards and midfielders. With Kane and Lo Celso dropping between the lines, it creates an overload against United’s three midfielders, leading to easy ball progression for Spurs. However, the Blades generally had very high work-rate to get behind the ball quickly and prevent Spurs from getting high-quality goal-scoring opportunities.
Here, Sheffield United do a good job of forcing Spurs wide after they lose the ball. However, Norwood and Lundstram lose track of Alli, who is able to move on Norwood’s blind-side and receive the ball in between the lines. Kane is effectively pinning two of United’s centre-backs as well. Also of note here is the rotation between Aurier and Lo Celso, which occurred frequently throughout the game. Aurier provides the width for Spurs, while Lo Celso inverts into the half-space in either a high position to help pin Sheffield united back or in a deeper position to help give Spurs passing lanes and overloads centrally in the build-up. Here, Lo Celso is in a deeper position, which affects United’s three midfielders. After Alli receives, the wing-back is now isolated in a two-versus-one against Alli and Aurier because of Kane pinning the centre-backs. Alli plays Aurier through, who crosses to Kane, who was not able to finish the chance.
These moments where Alli was able to use a blind-side movement to receive were especially effective because of Sheffield United’s shifting dynamics. When United did not press effectively on one side, or when Spurs used a third-man run to circulate the ball, it became easier for Spurs to progress.
Here, the ball has just been circulated very quickly to the opposite side. Sheffield United’s midfielders were not able to shift to ball-side quick enough to create horizontal compactness. As a result, Alli could receive as the free man between lines.
Pochettino’s game plan against Sheffield United showed their focus on pinning their centre-midfielders centrally to create space wide, and to use quick ball circulation to create difficulty for their shifting. Alli’s clever blind-side movements were also very effective in helping create goal-scoring chances and progression for Spurs.
Spurs Tactical Adjustment: Son’s Inverted Positioning
Although Spurs were able to progress in many moments from Alli’s clever movements and the Blades’ shifting dynamics, Sheffield United were able to create chances in the first half from transition moments and effective set pieces. Because of the difficulty of progressing the ball, Spurs made a slight adjustment with Son’s positioning. Son inverted centrally and into the half-space as the first half progressed.
In this picture, Spurs has just used quick ball circulation to move Sheffield United’s block and to cause difficulty to their shifting dynamics. Alli has come wide into the half-space, while Son has moved centrally, acting as a second forward with Kane. As a result, when their wing-back steps to Davies in the wide area, Basham is overloaded with Son running in behind and Alli in between the lines. Son is able to receive and cut the ball back to Lo Celso for a great scoring chance.
In this second picture it is also very clear. Kane and Son are pinning three of United’s backline, which forces them to give up dangerous space elsewhere. Here, Son will drop to receive, creating space in behind the backline for a ball through for Aurier.
This adjustment by Spurs allowed them to have more possession and control of the match towards the end of the first half.
Spurs’ Second Half Adjustments
Sheffield United’s approach to the game largely did not change in the second half. However, Spurs continued to make tactical adjustments to try to gain an advantage.
Harry Winks came into the game to start the second half for Ndombele. The adjustment was tactical as well, with Winks and Sissoko acting as a double pivot.
Here, Winks is acting as the primary pivot. Sissoko is moving wide to create a connection between Sanchez and Aurier, who is providing width for Spurs’ shape. The advantage here is that now United’s first line of pressure is broken and Sissoko can attack their midfield. Lo Celso can then invert as well for him to be able to receive between lines.
These changes also had an impact on creating Spurs’ goal. Sissoko’s positioning in the right half-space affects Sheffield United’s midfield, making them less horizontally compact. This helps open space for Alli between the lines. Basham is forced to step to Alli, which opens space for Kane in the wide area. Spurs now have the ball in their opponent’s half, and they use the very next possession to score their go-ahead goal.
As a final adjustment, Spurs went to a three in the back in possession with two holding midfielders, and a 5-4-1 out of possession to hold the lead. However, Sheffield United were able to get the equalizing goal.
While Sheffield United’s approach to the game was largely static throughout the game, Spurs made a number of small tactical changes to work to gain the advantage over the away side’s defending. This analysis shows that despite Spurs’ tactical adjustments, Sheffield United continued to be effective in transition moments and in their attack with their overlapping centre-backs to break down Spurs and get the tying goal. Sheffield United continues to impress in the Premier League as they now stand at 5th, while Spurs are still searching for answers and struggling to get results.
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