Originally predicted for relegation back to the Championship, Sheffield United under the leadership of Chris Wilder and Alan Knill were stunning their Premier League counterparts in the first half of the season. The management’s philosophy and tactics combined with club identity has seen two promotions in three seasons since the management duo were appointed in May 2016. Playing what can be described as an unorthodox playing style with ‘overlapping centre-backs’ and free-flowing rotations, alongside in-depth analysis on the opposition.
Coming off the back of a 1-1 draw at Brammal Lane to Watford, the club saw themselves sat in 7th place as they travelled over to the Etihad Stadium to face European giants Manchester City. Despite a 2-0 defeat, Pep Guardiola was stunned by Sheffield United’s performance describing them as an ‘incredible’ side, paying them the utmost respect. The visitors frustrated the blue side of Manchester for large periods of the game in their 3-5-2 formation, denying space for City’s midfield maestros in Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva to unlock the blades defence. The blues were desperate for a result as they were falling further behind current title favourites Liverpool. This tactical analysis will dissect how the Blades competed against the world’s best.
Manchester City opted for a 4-2-3-1 making three changes from their previous outing which saw them lose 3-2 away to Wolves. One of the changes being forced due to Ederson receiving a red card making way for Claudio Bravo to return to goal, Oleksandr Zinkencho and Eric Garcia the other two alterations. Fernandinho and Kyle Walker made up the rest of the back four, with Rodri Hernández and Silva in central midfield. Raheem Sterling and Rihad Mahrez occupy with wide areas with De Bruyne playing in behind Sergio Aguero who leads the City line.
Sheffield United lined up in their ever familiar 3-5-2 formation. They also made three changes from the previous game with Mo Bešić, Lys Mousset and Callum Robinson coming into the starting line up. Dean Henderson started in goal, the colossus central defensive line of Jack O’Connell, John Egan and Chris Basham were the three central defenders with Enda Stevens and George Baldock lining up as the wing-backs. Supporting Mo Beśić in central midfield was the captain Oliver Norwood and John Fleck, with the two summer signings Mousset and Robinson up front.
Out of possession, more often than not Sheffield United would prevent City playing in central areas when they had comfortable possession, allowing City’s full-backs to retain the ball with little pressure. The Blades formation was prominently a 5-3-2 when defending deep on the edge of their own 18-yard box, with the wing-backs defending deep and no space for the blues to play in what is commonly known as the ‘half-space’ between the defensive and midfield units.
From front to back, the compactness and short distances between each unit were key to frustrating the opposition. A recurring theme throughout the first half was Basham and O’Connell stepping into the half-space and applying pressure onto the Manchester City midfield to regain possession, more often than not forcing play backwards.
An example of a regular pattern occurring was from Kyle Walker looking to play into both Mahrez on the right touchline and De Bruyne in the right half-space, resulting in O’Connell or Stevens locking on to press their markers. The space in behind when stepping into the half-space was now the danger, with Agüero isolating Egan the central defender in a 1vs1 situations.
Egan and Steven’s covering positions to narrow the vacant left centre back area prevented City playing in behind, almost becoming a 4-4-2 formation when pressing the half-space or wide players. This was key in forcing the City full-back to not play forward and look to switch play. The on-loan Manchester United goalkeeper Henderson would be the extra cover in these recurring patterns to collect forced passes into the penalty area. In this situation, O’Connell stepped into the half-space and forced a mistake from the opposition and looked to play on the transition.
To retain possession, City would fluctuate between using a single pivot or two pivots to play between the Blades deep block. More commonly seen this season, City would move the full-backs inside into a central area, looking to receive and play into De Bruyne and Silva in the half-space. In doing this, the shorter distance passes make it easier for City to play progressive passes, whilst being in a covering position to either press or drop when possession is turned over. With the City midfield playing so narrow, this isolates the Blades wing-backs against both Sterling and Mahrez in 1v1 scenarios.
As the game progressed, City moved Zinchenko as a second pivot and Walker supported the two central defenders. Mousset on the transition was making excellent forward runs and isolating Fernandinho in 1vs1 situations. With Walker now a third centre back, his sheer pace prevented the Blades playing more direct and forced them to retain possession. Using the second pivot still allowed a successful build-up and allowed the blues to penetrate centrally into De Bruyne and Silva.
Once play had progressed into the half-space or wingers, City would regularly be in 2vs2 scenarios, looking to either combine with the supporting player or make forward runs in behind. Prior to Mahrez receiving possession, De Bruyne had received in the half-space and played quickly into the winger. Basham had pressed tight into De Bruyne to apply pressure. With Stevens pressing the winger, this left space for De Bruyne to exploit in behind, knowing Egan will cover across to apply emergency cover.
From deep throw-ins and goal kicks, the Blades would look to engage high up the pitch and initiate the press. Even when cutting off the passing lanes into Rodri and the two higher attacking midfielders, City would still look to retain possession when under immense pressure. The way Sheffield United press against a back four, in particular, commits either Baldock or Stevens to lock on to the opposing full-back, which in this case is Baldock pressing high onto Silva as the ball travels and moving into a 4-4-2 formation, with Baldock almost becoming a right-winger.
To begin Mousset was aggressive in his initiation of the press and forced play into the full-back areas, with Bešić being in an excellent covering position onto City midfielder. In an attempt to create overloads in the central area, Zinkencho the City left-back actually becomes an extra pivot in holding midfield and Silva becomes the makeshift left-back, however, Fleck was ready to engage onto Rodri in case of the pass between the lines. Leaving the only option for City to play over the press or look to switch the play, in this case, Silva plays over the press into Raheem Sterling who lost possession against a rampant Basham, and the Blades retained the ball.
When the opportunity arose, Sheffield United were able to progress the ball into wide attacking areas. They would utilise 3v2 or 4v3 situations and force the blues’ attacking players to track the wing-backs and overlapping centre-backs into defensive areas. Basham was able to receive and step into the wide right area of the pitch to create in this instance a 4v3 scenario with the wing-back, right central-midfielder and centre-forward. The rotation between the four created opportunities to exploit in behind the City defensive line using set patterns and third man runs.
More often than not the striker maintaining his position in between the centre-back and full-back to combine or to receive and turn. The deepest player in this still image played wide into Baldock the right wing-back and made a forward run in behind and vacated the space to start the rotation. As Baldock received, if he couldn’t play forward he’d look to retain possession and move inside into the half-space.
Basham would then slot in on the right-wing back position, with Bešić dropping off into Basham’s original position. The Blades pivot Norwood dropped to be secure in front of both Egan and the supporting wide centre-back to create a numerical advantage to prevent City from playing directly on the transition.
This unique tactical system has stunned many in the clubs return to the Premier League and Sheffield United were unfortunate to lose 2-0 to the hosts. Despite having a goal ruled out early on from Mousset for offside, the system has been created to suit the personnel over a number of years. Three of the starting XI in this fixture starting Wilder’s first fixture in 2016/17 season vs Bolton Wanderers.
Based on a set of core working values mixed with a resilient group of players, the work ethic and robustness out of possession. This allows the team to dominate long spells of possession in the opponent’s half with numerical overloads and free-flowing rotations. Despite current matters, the management duo has overcome all the pundits and now the club see themselves as potential Europa League contenders for next season.