Wolverhampton Wanderers were looking to go nine games unbeaten when they came up against Sheffield United who were looking to maintain their unbeaten start away from home in the 2019/20 Premier League. Wolves were looking to build on a thrilling 3-3 away draw against Sporting Braga in the Europa League which saw them qualify for the next round of the competition. Sheffield United were also looking to build on a 3-3 draw against Manchester United. The blades had also made an impressive start to life back in the top division which had seen them take up 6th position. The match promised to be an interesting spectacle of two teams who operate in similar fashions in terms of formations and structures of play.
A 1-1 draw was the end result thanks to Lys Mousset and Matt Doherty. Overall a draw seemed to be a fair result with both teams having good spells in different periods of the game. Wolves will be disappointed with the way they started both of the halves, however, it is clear that they have a true fighting spirit and are able to get back into games. Chris Wilder will be delighted to the start Sheffield United have made this season and a point away against a good Wolves side will give his team further confidence going forward. This tactical analysis will attempt to highlight the tactics of both teams and the ways in which they attempted to win the match. This analysis will also look at the ways both teams can improve moving forward and how they can obtain a successful season based on these tactical usages.
A quick mention also to Benik Afobe and his family at this tough time, the thoughts of everyone in the footballing world are with them.
Wolverhampton lined up in a 3-4-3 formation. Rui Patrício started in between the sticks. The back three was made of Conor Coady, Leander Dendoncker and Max Kilman. Jonny Castro and Matt Doherty were the two full-backs looking to provide the natural width when Wolves went forward. Rúben Neves and João Moutinho made up the midfield two. They would be the creative hub of the team and both had enjoyed successful seasons thus far. Adama Traoré, Diogo Jota and Raúl Jiménez were the front three. Their natural pace and excellent goal scoring ability would be crucial in the way that Wolves looked to attack the opposing defensive line.
Sheffield United, on the other hand, operated in a 5-3-2 formation. Dean Henderson started between the sticks. He returned in goal after missing the previous clash with Manchester United, his parent club. Chris Basham, Jack O’Connell and John Egan were the back three. They looked to play their usual game by overlapping and providing passing lanes. George Baldock and Enda Stevens were the two full-backs, looking to provide width going forward. John Fleck, John Lundstram and Ollie Norwood were the midfield three. Their energy and ability to find passes into the strikers would be key. David McGoldrick and Lys Mousset were the front two. They would be the main goal threat for the blades.
Sheffield United’s Strategic Press
An interesting development from the start of the game was the way in which Sheffield United went about pressing the ball and winning it back in higher areas. As will be discussed later, Sheffield United tried to counter-attack against what was not Wolves’ strongest defensive line. Therefore, winning the ball higher up the pitch was of great importance. Another reason for the pressing in a strategic manner was to stop Neves and Moutinho getting the ball in central areas of the pitch. Both are clearly Wolves’ most influential players in terms of creativity and nullifying their impact on the game was of great importance. The way they attempted to do this was by flooding the central area of the pitch with bodies and cut off passing lanes to the other central defenders and the two central midfielders. This meant that they did not press against the defender with the ball, forcing him to go long as a result of not having any options.
The front three were therefore also deeply ineffective in the opening minutes as they were not receiving the ball in the areas in which they could hurt the Sheffield United defence. Below is a great example of this. Conor Coady has the ball in the defensive area of the pitch, however, due to the excellent and strategic pressing, Sheffield United operated with he hasn’t got many options to pass to. This forces him to either go long or give the ball back to the goalkeeper. Either way, Wolves’ normal play whereby they progress out from the back with the ball was not possible due to this press.
This pressing was used early on by Sheffield United to prevent Wolves having an influence a game. They scored within 65 seconds which highlights their ability to win the ball in dangerous areas and counter-attack. Preventing the Wolves central midfielders getting the ball in deeper lying areas of the pitch was vital for them to keep a defensive structure. Below is another excellent example of this. All the Sheffield United players are assigned specific Wolves players to press and deny space. This is done to great effect and once again means Coady has to go long to find an avenue in terms of possession outlook.
Wolves’ Front Three
A further interesting development that occurred throughout the match was the nature of Wolves’ front three. Adama Traoré, Diogo Jota and Raúl Jiménez all took up interesting positions throughout the first half. What was interesting in particular was the role of Traoré and Jota. Traoré would often drift into the wider right position to provide the natural width for Wolves. This was to exploit the fact that Sheffield United’s defence is not blessed with pace. Furthermore, Jiménez would often drift into the false nine positions to create space for both Traoré and Jota to run into. Jota was essentially a left forward who played more narrow compared to Traoré. This variation in positioning caused huge problems for Sheffield United in terms of who to mark when Wolves had possession of the ball. This was all in an attempt to stretch the back five of Sheffield United and allow Traoré to use his pace to get in behind the defensive line.
This worked to good effect throughout the first half, however, it was not easy as Sheffield United were superb in the defensive aspects of the game. Jiménez was essentially doing the same role as Roberto Firmino does for Liverpool, with Jota also supporting him. Therefore, Wolves did not have a conventional front three and it instead was full of rotation and movement all in an attempt to create chances. Below is an excellent example of this play. Jiménez is in the false 9 positions looking to drag out defenders whilst Jota picks up a position in the inside left channel. Traoré is heavily stretched out to the right-hand side of the pitch looking to use his pace to get at the opposing goal.
Wolves often play with a 3-5-2 and switch to a 3-4-3 when in need of a goal. However, they started the game with the later to bring the best out of the front three. In the previous week, Sheffield United drew 3-3 with Manchester United, who also used a 3-4-3. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James started as the front three and ripped Sheffield United’s defence to shreds in a 15 minute period which saw them score three goals. The problem Manchester United had was that their midfield was completely useless in finding the front three at a regular rate. Wolves, on the other hand, have two of the best central midfielders in the premier league in terms of forwarding passing and therefore were able to play with the front three to cause damage towards the Sheffield backline. Furthermore, the flexible nature of the front three was able to be used as an operating system due to the balance of the team. This highlights why Wolves went with the 3-4-3 as they saw that it could hurt Sheffield United. By having Jota and Jiménez in more central areas and Traoré slightly wider it provided for a really effective tactical usage.
Lys Mousset has had an excellent start to the 2019/20 Premier League season. He has five goals and three assists to his name thus far and has provided Sheffield United with an excellent goal threat. He has scored in games against Arsenal and Manchester United which further highlights his vital role within the squad. Within this game, his role was interesting to analyse. He would often take up positions on the left side of the field. This was to exploit the fact that Doherty would move forward as much as possible which would leave space in behind the defensive line.
This would often be runs in behind which would further drag the Wolves defence apart. Therefore, space on the left side of the pitch was vital in order to hurt the Wolves backline. As will be discussed later on, Sheffield United looked to counter-attack as much as possible. This, therefore, meant that the space on the left side of the pitch was always open for Mousset to run into and get chances on goal. Below is a great example of the average position he would take throughout the match. He was constantly on the shoulder of the back three and looked to exploit the weakness Wolves possessed in defensive areas.
Mousset’s positioning was also vital when Sheffield United looked to go in behind. Mousset’s ability to run in behind coupled with Sheffield United’s effectiveness on the break meant that these runs in behind were common. Below is a great example of this. Mousset makes a clever run in behind the defensive line from the left side of the pitch. Since Doherty is pushed further up the pitch it leaves Mousset with the space to run into without fear of being tracked. This once again allowed Sheffield United to stretch the Wolves backline and cause chance creation.
Wolves’ Central Midfield
As mentioned earlier, Wolves have an excellent midfield set up in Rúben Neves and João Moutinho. Both are extremely talented at passing and being a hub for attacking play. In this game, they were playing as a flat two with the front three ahead of them. Therefore it was their job to get the ball into the attacking players as much as possible. The first half saw very little of this, as Sheffield United were fantastic in there strategic pressing which meant that the pair hardly saw the ball. However, due to this realisation, the second half saw a change in the way Wolves approached their attacking play and used a different tactical set up in order to get the best out of the two.
The way they did this was by essentially using Neves in the quarterback role by picking up the ball in deeper areas of the pitch to have an influence on the game. This was used tactically to try to distort the strong midfield line Sheffield United had in place and allow the wing-backs to get forward more regularly. Below is an example of the spaces that Neves was picking up. Instead of being further up the pitch he picked up the ball in deep-lying positions to use cross-field passes to break down the rigid Sheffield United backline. This role can be compared to that of Michael Carrick at Manchester United or Sergio Busquets at Barcelona. Neves has all the attributes to play this role and this had a great effect in the second half.
Neves, therefore, can be seen as a key reason as to why Wolves were able to take control of the game in the second half of the match. His calming ability and excellent passing range meant that Wolves were likely to attack much more due to his ability to find others in key areas. Furthermore, since he was essentially the deeper-lying midfielder it meant that Moutinho was able to push forward a lot more into areas of the pitch which were dangerous to Sheffield United. This tactical switch, therefore, meant more mobility in the midfield area which in turn led to Sheffield United being out of position a lot more in central areas and this coupled with the overall movement and flexible nature of Wolverhampton’s attacking players was dangerous for Sheffield United. Below is yet another example of Neves picking up the ball in a deeper position of the pitch. Moutinho is also able to find space due to this tactical usage.
Sheffield United Counter Attack
The final point of analysis in this piece is to look at the way in which Sheffield United looked to counter-attack. This was especially seen in the second half whereby Sheffield United were defending a 1-0 lead. The likes of Mousset were able to benefit from this massively as the ball was being played in behind the defensive line whereby their pace could be exploited against the Wolves back three. Furthermore, there was huge space in the midfield area due to the tactical changes made by Wolves which meant that the likes of Fleck could get forward and feed the strikers making these runs. Below is a great example of this, the runs made by the Sheffield United in behind caused great confusion for the Wolves backline. The image below presents a great chance for them to score due to the counter-attack.
This was increased development throughout the second half. Sheffield sat back and looked to break whenever the opportunity presented itself. Below is a further example of this tactical usage. The runs made by the strikers were in behind the defensive line to get opportunities to score. Had Sheffield United been more clinical they could have grabbed more goals in the second half. Wolves were searching for a goal and left spaces in behind which allowed this to be a formality.
To conclude, a draw between the two sides was fair in the context of the overall match. Both teams had good spells throughout the game and gave a good account of themselves. Wolves will be happy with the way they responded to a poor start and their second half was much more convincing than the first. Sheffield United, on the other hand, will be extremely happy with the way they started the first half and their overall performance. They will be disappointed that they could not hold on to the lead they gained early on. Furthermore, going forward both teams will be confident they can achieve successful seasons. Wolves will look to build on their good form and hopefully push for another European place. Sheffield United will be increasingly happy with the start they’ve made and will be confident of achieving a top-half finish.
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