High-flying Sheffield United hosted Brighton & Hove Albion this past Saturday in the 27th gameweek of the Premier League. Sheffield United were looking to continue their fine run of form that saw them win three matches is in a row. With the gap between them and the top four being incredibly slim and Manchester City’s looming Champions League ban present, this was a great opportunity for Sheffield United to grab three points off a team in the relegation battle. This analysis will dive deeper into Chris Wilder’s tactics during the match.
Brighton, who are dangerously close to the Premier League drop zone, were fighting for every point they could earn. With many respectable clubs surrounding the bottom three places in the table, it was imperative that Brighton picked up points from the match. This tactical analysis will examine exactly how Brighton managed to hinder Sheffield United’s attack and hold them to a 1-1 draw at Bramall Lane.
Sheffield United lined up in their typical 3-5-2 formation which has yielded great success throughout the Premier League campaign. The backline consisting of Chris Basham, John Egan, and Jack O’Connell offers a physical presence combined with attacking qualities. Dean Henderson has the second-highest number of clean sheets, behind Alisson Becker of Liverpool. Furthermore, Sheffield United’s defensive unit has let in just 24 goals this season, fewer than every team (except Liverpool). There was a place for Sander Berge, the clubs newly signed Norwegian who offers great height in the midfield. Having played Champions League football at his previous club Genk, Berge adds great match experience into the squad despite his young age. Upfront, Oliver McBurnie and captain Billy Sharp led the line. The 3-5-2 formation allows for Sheffield United to attack down the flanks with peace of mind if they lose possession. The three centre-backs can cover for any mistake and can also be an outlet in attacking plays. Later in the analysis, you will see how Wilder utilises his centre-backs.
For Brighton, the set up was surprising given the attacking threat Sheffield United have. Graham Potter’s men started in a 3-4-1-2 formation with a strike partnership of Glenn Murray and Neal Maupay. Maupay is the danger man for Brighton having scored seven goals this season. It was a rare start for Murray; however, this was due to Potter’s tactics for this match. Since United were likely to have more possession of the ball, Potter knew having Murray as a target man would be beneficial. Brighton looked to copy Sheffield United with the main difference being that Aaron Mooy, the creative spark in the team, would tuck in behind the strikers and play as a number ten. During this match analysis, the play reveals how this formation causes Brighton problems and how they adjusted.
Pattern Play Leading to Chances
Where Sheffield United were most successful was in attacking the flanks. The decision to attack down the wings was clearly a tactical one. Wilder was hoping to expose the lack of pace in the channels for Brighton. There were 59 attacks down the wings, with 35 coming from left and 24 coming from the right-hand side. Each produced an expected goal ratio of 0.45 and 0.26 respectively, compared to 0.01 XG when attacking the centre of the pitch. Sheffield’s focus was to get the ball wide and into the box where their strikers could attack. Astonishingly, Sheffield crossed the ball 41 times during the match, completing around 20% of that number. This compares to Brighton who crossed the ball 3 times and focused all of their attacks down the centre of the pitch.
The reason this is significant in this analysis is due to the ease with which Sheffield United found themselves in crossing positions. Yes, tactically, the Blades set up to get crosses into the box, but there was no pressure from Brighton’s defenders. This can be viewed in two ways: first, there was a lack of pressure from Brighton. Secondly, Wilder’s tactics created more space than Brighton could cover. The answer lies in both of these viewpoints.
In this situation early in the match, John Fleck is on the ball. There are four Sheffield United attackers surrounding the edge of the box looking for a cross. Due to Fleck’s space and time on the ball, he can deliver that cross, which leads to an open chance due to Brighton’s poor pressing and marking. Here, Lewis Dunk’s poor marking is left exposed. Fleck can cross the ball into Billy Sharp, who is left unmarked at the back post. Sheffield United allow space and time to cross on the wings to give their midfielders time to flood the box. This creates a numerical problem for the defending team. This example is a primary example of how Brighton’s inability to close the ball quickly can negatively affect them.
Tactically, where Sheffield United excel is in their pattern of play leading to these crosses. This refers back to the claim that they create more space than Brighton can cover. Wilder emphasises a triangular shape to Sheffield’s passing options, especially when on the wing. Typically the wingers and the midfielder would be able to connect with a pass, but where United differ from other teams is the positioning of the centre-backs. Here, in this phase of play, the triangular shape becomes relevant. As the centre-back is another option for the man in possession, it gives time and space to put in crosses. It is not uncommon for the centre-backs to be crossing the ball in this system. In fact, Basham and O’Connell played five and seven crosses into the box respectively during the match. This is an incredibly high number for a player in that position.
Team Positioning – Sheffield United
Sheffield United and Brighton’s average positioning was another factor that showed the tactical instructions for both teams. As discussed above, Wilder was extremely focused on utilising his wing-backs and ensuring that the centre-backs were involved in the play. This meant the average line had to be very high up the pitch. Because Sheffield United had 59% of the possession during the match, this allowed them to push higher up. Since Brighton did not possess a large counter-attacking threat due to the pace of the wing-backs and Murray, Wilder was fairly confident that the positioning of his team would jeopardize them.
The graphic below reveals how high up Sheffield United really were. It is incredible that every player except for the deepest center back was in Brighton’s half. This created immense pressure on Brighton and made it tough for them to build out of their own half. It was common for Brighton to try and punch it up the middle whenever possible.
Team Positioning – Brighton
Contrarily, Brighton’s players were all in their own half except for the two strikers. However, for most of the match, almost all 11 players were behind the ball at all times. After they scored their goal against the run of play from a set-piece, Brighton’s tendency to get every player behind the ball increased. Additionally, they tweaked the formation to play a more defensive 5-3-2, limiting the attacking freedom of the wingbacks. It was clear Potter wanted a point after 30 minutes of play. This imbalance of field positioning created a clear favourite to win the match. Sheffield United created more chances, had more possession and had better field positioning, yet failed to win the match.
In the analysis below, this is an example of how deep Brighton was during phases of the match. This is not resulting in a corner kick despite what it seems. This defensive positioning is a result of an attack from open play. It was almost impossible for them to get out of their own half due to the pressure they were under. Again, we see players in the box, but there is not enough pressure on the ball. Potter needs to work with his players to improve spacing and marking in their own defensive third of the pitch. Creating outlets and releasing counter attacks is important when sitting so deep and Brighton did not do that to the best of its ability. This caused problems throughout the match.
Because there was no support due to the players average positioning, it was extremely tough on Murray and Maupay throughout the match. Between the two of them, they only had two dribbles, with none of them leading to a successful dribble. In this example, we can see Maupay trying to take on the Sheffield United defence. There is not a player in green in sight and he is forced to put his head down and run. This was the story of the match for Brighton. This was due to Sheffield United’s high positioning as well as their defensive organization.
This match analysis was primarily focused on Sheffield United’s attacking tactics and Brighton’s poor defensive shape due to how the game turned out. Brighton’s goal came from a set-piece that was against the fun of play. It was unlucky for Sheffield not to score more goals considering the amount of time and space they created in Brighton’s final third. Without the heroics from Brighton keep Mat Ryan at the end of the match, it would have been another victory for Sheffield United.
There are a lot of positives for Chris Wilder to take away from this match, but if his side is to push for a Champions League place they must be winning these types of matches.