The fourth round of the FA Cup was upon us this weekend and brought about a clash between Championship side Millwall and Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United. Millwall have had an impressive season which has often gone under the radar. They sit two points away from the Play-Off’s and are on a five-game undefeated streak in the Championship itself. Sheffield United deserve an enormous amount of praise for their performance this season and they currently sit eighth in the Premier League table. Chris Wilder has done a fantastic job and they deserve all the praise they are getting for their commitment and fantastic football. The game between the two sides therefore presented an interesting question as to who would be able to progress and potentially cause an upset to some of the bigger teams in the competition.
Overall, the quality of Sheffield United was too much as they ran out 0-2 winners. The game itself did not have a huge amount of quality, two impressive goals from Muhamed Bešić and Oliver Norwood was enough to put Sheffield United in the hat for Monday’s draw. Millwall will be disappointed with the result, however, being out of all cup competitions will allow them to focus on getting a play-off place. Sheffield United, on the other hand, are almost guaranteed safety in the Premier League and a surprise run at the FA Cup would add to the amazing season they are already having.
This tactical analysis will attempt to highlight the tactics used by both teams. The analysis itself will look at why Millwall were able to deny Sheffield United space to play their usual game and how Sheffield United attempted to get through this.
Millwall lined up in a standard 4-4-2 formation. Bartosz Biallkowski started in goal for the Lions. The back four was made up of James Brown, Alex Pearce, Jake Cooper, and Murray Wallace. They would have the role of being solid and preventing Sheffield United from using their usual patterns of play. The two central midfielders were Billy Michell and Jayson Molumby. They would be tasked with protecting the back four and moving the ball forward quickly to allow the attacking players to counter-attack. Shane Ferguson and Connor Mahoney were the two wingers. As mentioned, they would be looking to get forward on the counter-attack and get as many goal scoring opportunities as possible. Aiden O’Brien and Matt Smith were the two central strikers who looked to bring the others into the game and potentially get on the score sheet.
As for the Blades, they lined up in their traditional 5-3-2. Dean Henderson started in goal. If he continues his fine form he could easily push for an England space and next season a potential first team spot for Manchester United. Chris Basham, Phil Jagielka and Jack O’Connell made up the back three. Their usual role of overlapping the wing-backs would most certainly be on show. Kieron Freeman and Ben Osborn were the two wing-backs. Their role was as per usual, getting forward and providing another attacking outlet. Oliver Norwood, Luke Freeman and Muhamed Bešić were the midfield three. In a game like this controlling the game with good passing would be vital. Callum Robinson and Billy Sharp were the two central strikers. Making the most of any chances would be vital as Millwall’s defensive structure would not allow many.
Millwall’s pressing structure
The most important aspect of Millwall’s tactical setup in this match was clearly going to be the work they did off the ball. Sheffield United had 54% of the possession and Millwall had to put in good tactical structures off the ball in order not to be dominated. The way they did this was through a structure involving their 4-4-2 formation. The midfield players and the strikers would position themselves in positions whereby they could prevent Sheffield United coming out with the ball using their three centre-backs. The likes of Smith and O’Brian were constantly in positions whereby they could prevent any form of forward play from the Sheffield United backline. Positioning was key when pressing, as preventing spaces was the key facet of the Millwall press.
As mentioned, positioning in this 4-4-2 type pressing was key. The two wingers were situated with either the wide centre-back or the wing-back. The two central midfielders were of course situated in the middle of the park and with the other central midfielders. The strikers were central and occupying the centre-backs. This was evident within the first half of the game. As the game went on they struggled to maintain this press which could be seen as a good indicator as to why Sheffield United dominated the game. Below is a really good example of how Sheffield United were unable to come out from the back due to Millwall’ s structural pressing. This was evident throughout the first half an unfortunately for Millwall it did not continue throughout the whole match.
The structural pressing seen by Millwall was to also stop the ball getting to the central strikers and the wing-backs. These areas of the pitch are vital for the Blades in terms of getting men forward and making attacking avenues in forward areas of the pitch. As previously mentioned, this did not occur in the second half of the game. Had this continued it could have been the case that Sheffield United would have struggled to score the goals they did. Millwall dropped off significantly in the second half which meant Sheffield United had much more space to operate in. The pressing was therefore significantly effective from a Millwall perspective.
Below is an example of the way in which they were able to prevent Sheffield United space in key areas. All the players that are not in the defensive line are engaged in preventing the opposing players having space. As will be mentioned later, Sheffield United found a way around this, however, this was the intention Millwall had.
Sheffield United’s central midfield
As discussed, the way in which Sheffield United attempted to get through the press that Millwall attempted to implement was by finding space in behind the central midfield. On paper, it would have seemed that Sheffield United were going to line up with three central midfielders in a flat motion. However, the often occurrence was that two of the midfielders would drop slightly deeper and one would push in behind the two Millwall central midfielders to act as a number ten. Bešić and Norwood were the scorers of two beautiful goals as they were able to find space on the edge of the box to have shots on goal.
This can be seen below. Due to Millwall switching off a pocket of space pops up in behind the midfield line and in front of the defensive line. This allows Bešić to get into a good position which allows him to be in a good attacking position. Although a goal does not occur from this specific situation, it is important to see the pattern of play which led to this happening.
This was seen throughout the game. When teams operate in a 4-4-2 it is always extremely difficult to find space as there is often very little space in between the defensive line and the two central midfielders. The objective is therefore getting the players with creative spark in attacking positions in order to create chances. This lack of space can be seen as a main reason as to why the spaces that were popping up were not central but slightly wide. The left and right channel was the main spaces that the midfielders were attempting to get into.
Below highlights this extremely well. Freeman finds himself in loads of space on the centre left area of the pitch. This means that the central midfielders are not able there in time and there is an opportunity for an opportunity. As will be discussed later the strikers are also in good positions to receive the ball. Getting more men forward is therefore of great importance to get attacking opportunities.
Since Millwall were willing to give up the majority of possession, their main way of creating chances was through counter-attacking play. This was vital as it would reduce the pressure on the back four and it would also allow them to use their attacking talent in order to get goals. Runs in behind was the most important aspect of this. Due to Sheffield United’s three central midfielders playing significantly high and with lots of space in behind it meant that there were opportunities to get in behind and create chances. Ferguson and Mahoney were key in this as their pace was meant to target the opposing defensive line.
Below is an example of the positions that Sheffield United allowed Millwall to get into. Winning the ball back in the central area of the pitch was a regular occurrence for Millwall and they always looked to spring in behind with the pace they possess. The likes of Newcastle United use the same tactical usage as it allows the attacking players to be able to be in better positions to score. Millwall use the counter-attack and low-block partnership quite often and to good effect. This game was an exception and going forward it would be wise to continue using their pace on the break to hurt opposition teams.
Since Millwall were in a 4-4-2 formation, it meant that the two strikers and the two wingers would be the ones getting into counter attacking positions. The holding midfielders and defenders would stay back to prevent a counter-attack the other way. Having a pressing structure as mentioned earlier was therefore significant. The two usages of off the ball and on the ball tactics really suit each other. In this game they did not counter-attack enough hence the fact that they didn’t score. If they were able to use their pace more effectively, they could very well see themselves score a lot more goals and create more opportunities.
Below is a further example of the counter-attacking that Millwall attempted to use. The positions of the players is begging for a through ball in order to get in behind and have a chance of a goal-scoring opportunity. This point is to therefore signify that more technical quality in central midfield could allow Millwall a lot more goals. The attacking players clearly have the game intelligence to make good runs, they just need to be found more often.
Sheffield United’s strikers
A further interesting development was the role of the Sheffield United strikers. Robinson and Sharp started as the two main centre-forwards and their role was very critical to the way Sheffield United approached the match. Both were extremely narrow with each other and were always very close together. This was to, as mentioned previously, allow the midfield to pick up pockets of space and to also allow the wing-backs to push further up the pitch. Therefore, by positioning themselves right against the Millwall centre-backs it created a lot of space for other players to get into. This is something Sheffield United needed to happen regularly due to Millwall’s low-block.
Below highlights how both Robinson and Sharp were narrow and did not find themselves too far apart from one another. This allowed clever link up play between the two to occur much more regularly. As we can also see the wing backs are allowed to occupy the wider spaces which is a key facet in Sheffield United’s attacking play. Therefore, by having both strikers close together allowed various goal scoring opportunities.
As mentioned, Robinson and Sharp were able to provide the team with hold up play and space to run into. Chris Wilder expects this from his strikers for the overall benefit of the team. The selfless nature of both is vital to allowing the other players to get into the game. Despite on paper it seeming like Sheffield United enjoy sitting back with their five at the back, they play a very attacking version of this and in fact use their strikers as a focal point not a counter-attacking usage. Usually, one of the strikers will drop slightly deeper to operate as a number ten to create more chances. This was not the case in this game.
Below we can see both strikers occupying both central defenders. Their role was to therefore be pressed right up against the centre-backs. This shows that although it may seem Sheffield United play the same way every week, there are tactical changes to individuals to ensure that they get the most out of all players on the pitch. This also highlights that all players in Chris Wilder’s side are involved with attacking play.
To conclude, Sheffield United’s tactical usage of finding space and getting others into the game was too much for Millwall. Although they put up a good fight, they will be disappointed that their attacking quality did not manage to show. Moving forward, Sheffield United will be hoping that a cup run could add to their already impressive season. Chris Wilder will hope for a home tie against a lesser opposition to be able to progress. As for Millwall, they are now able to focus on getting in the play-offs. Although it will be a big effort, with no cup football to distract them they have a good chance of this.