At the start of the Premier League, few in pre-season could’ve predicted the clash between Sheffield United and Manchester City would be a top seven clash. Though City won’t catch Liverpool in the title race, Manchester City showed great tactical improvements here which will show them in good stead for the rest of the season.
In this tactical analysis, I will be examining the various ways Sheffield United made this such a tight affair, and how Pep’s men eventually overcame them through his superior tactics. This analysis will also be particularly focusing on an overlooked aspect of City’s game which does not get the attention it perhaps deserves at times.
The big surprise in the lineups was the shock return of Aymeric Laporte. In his first game back after 5 months out, Laporte was jettisoned straight into the match, rather than being eased in off the bench. City continued with a back three they have been trialling in recent weeks, albeit with Rodri pushed into central midfield, allowing Laporte to come in at the back. Sheffield United went with a back five, only a very small variation from their usual 3-5-2 formation. The big change, however, was the inclusion of lower league legend Billy Sharp, Oliver McBurnie’s third different strike partner in three different games.
This may not be a wholly original point, but without a doubt one worth emphasizing. Sheffield United are quite good at defending. United’s goals conceded of 23 is bettered in the league only by Liverpool, whilst Leicester sits on the same total as they do. For a team that has been promoted to the Premier League and made minimal signings, their defensive solidarity has been fantastic. One needs only look at their structure to see exactly why they are just so difficult to break down.
There were minimal gaps between any of the Sheffield United players, and they sit in a solid structure challenging City to break them down. Further, their formation is massively centralised. In flooding the middle of the pitch, City are forced wide and challenged to go round the wing-back and covering central defender. The wing-backs Stevens and Baldock were able to use the touchline as a 12th man and knowing that Pep Guardiola had fielded two inverted wingers, shunt their danger men inside towards their block of destructive midfielders. Sheffield United’s structure was consistent throughout and allowed them to withstand Manchester City’s barrage for 70 minutes with exception of a penalty saved by Henderson.
The tactical move to a back three from City has had mixed results for Pep Guardiola’s men, but in this game it allowed them to really control the game from the first whistle. Even if they struggled to get through Sheffield United’s fantastic 5-3-2, they would just recycle the ball and move from side to side, evading their press.
Sheffield United’s Premier League record this season versus teams playing a three-man system is seven games played: one win, three draws, and three losses. When comparing this to their overall record of eight wins, nine losses, and seven draws it seems as if Sheffield United have had a chink in their armour unearthed.
A big part of their tactics is playing with two strikers, both of whom press high and try to win the ball back, often on their own. McBurnie was their one big outlays in the summer, and an important one at that, as he is a physical striker who pins back defenders and wins the ball high up the pitch. Over the course of this game, he recovered the ball in the opposition half only three times, alongside a combined 0 from Sharp, Lys Mousset, and Callum Robinson.
The back three prevents Sheffield United from being able to mark the opposition central defenders with man to man coverage. Instead, they have to try and cut off the passing lanes, which against Pep’s city was not going to be enough.
Whilst City’s defence has come under criticism this season their balance playing out from the back here was perfect. They had badly missed Laporte, an actual left-footer to play on the left-hand side, in their attempts to evade pressure. This meant that every member of their defence was comfortable on the ball, and playing on their dominant side, a vital part of passing out of defence.
Even with their ability to recycle possession and evade the Sheffield press, City still struggled to find their way through to open the scoring. They were getting shot after shot off, but not all were high quality. City managed a total of 17 shots, 12 of which were an xG of 0.05 or lower, indicating a likelihood of scoring only five in 100, or even less. Even the shots considered of a “high” xG by Wyscout were with a caveat of uncertainty, with Otamendi’s bicycle kick from a decent position also being a bicycle kick by Nicolas Otamendi, and City’s spot-kick record being as poor as it is.
City eventually, however, created more high-quality chances through outstanding forward play and movement. With a structure as deep-set and well-drilled as Sheffield’s, movement is key to drawing men out of position and creating the space to exploit. This can be seen by the average positioning of the front three. They are so close together, not necessarily because that was where they were playing, but because they were each rotating constantly, each just as comfortable playing off the left, through the middle or down the right.
Raheem Sterling gets plaudits on a regular basis for his improved finishing, his pace, his ability to take on a man. Where he is hugely undervalued is his movement across the front line. He is just as comfortable now playing on the right out wide, off the left, or upfront. Throughout he played all three, constantly floating about looking for holes in the United defence. His movement for the goal, shown above, draws the right centre-back out to go to him as they recognise his ability to turn and run at goal.
Further, after Riyad Mahrez floats in, Stevens goes with him to stop him from receiving the ball off Sterling after it’s played. This combination of movement by these players and Sergio Agüero staying central drifting off the back shoulder gives Kevin de Bruyne acres of space to drive down the wing. With his world-class ability to cross, and Agüero’s world-class ability to get away from his man and into the box, the winning goal in this game was simply an inevitability by this point. This goal highlights the skills of De Bruyne and Agüero clear as day, but the movement of Mahrez and Sterling is what makes it.
Manchester City and Sheffield United were fascinatingly tactically matched. The move to a back three in recent weeks, however, seemed to save Pep’s men here. The movement of the front three was vital, the ability of the back three to play it out from the back crucial, and eventually, they managed to break down Sheffield’s immense structure.
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