Sheffield United team analysis: The Wild Wilder West
Thirteen years after their relegation from the Premier League Sheffield United are back after trips up and down the football ladder. From failed attempts at both the Championship and League One play offs to a club record 100 points in League One, and second place in last season’s Championship to secure promotion to the Premier League.
It has been a wild ride for the Blades and their fans. The arrival of life long Blades fan Chris Wilder after leading Northampton Town to 99 points in League Two was the first step towards improvement. One year earlier Billy Sharp returned to Bramall Lane for his third stint at his boyhood club Sheffield United. Sharp’s return, the arrival of Wilder and addition of multiple players changed the perception of Sheffield fans, and brought a more positive atmosphere to the Lane.
Wilder’s brand of football at Sheffield United attracted views in League One and the Championship. Exciting wing-play famed by the overlapping center backs caught the eyes of football fans through out the divisions. For much of the deserved hype around the overlapping center back, this feature is only a gear in Sheffield United’s gear train. Wilder’s system is far more interesting than just a couple of overlapping center backs, and below is the breakdown of how Sheffield United ticks.
Overlapping center backs
Perhaps the most unique feature of Sheffield’s approach and what makes them stand out is their overlapping center backs. As cool as it sounds, this approach needs highly technical center backs with good understanding of where and when to advance. Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham’s ability on the ball in terms of passing and crossing, in addition to their understanding of when to overlap makes them the perfect candidates. “As a young kid I was a midfielder but then as I came through the reserves at Bolton they put me back to center half and I properly got to know the position. I’ve been back and forth between midfield and center half all my career really. I get put back into midfield because of my energy. I’ve recently been playing center half but still popping up in midfield as well.” Basham, the right center back, told The Daily Mail in an interview in 2016. The English defender/midfielder further proved his naturalness in both roles when asked which player in history would he like to play alongside. He gave two answers, once as a defender and another as a midfielder.
Wilder’s assistant Alan Knill is said to be the one accredited for this invention. The only overload they could get was a right or left side center back against deep opposition in League One. However, rather than going inside the center backs overlapped the wing backs. Early on this caused problems defensively and Knill elaborates on this “ We got done 4–1 at Walsall, and it was four counterattacks: our right side center back crossed one of them, and they went down the other end and scored. Four times. So we adjusted it a little bit, but the positives outweigh the negatives. By letting them go — not at the same time — it drives back their best attacking players. And there’s no counterattack [threat] because their best players are defending.” Defensive issues were fixed through multiple hours spent on the training ground trying to perfect the system — explained later in the article — but the positives upfront kept reaping the rewards as oppositions were unable to cop with the overlapping center backs.
To enable the overlapping of center backs Sheffield United focus their play exclusively on the wings. The back three helping John Fleck and Oliver Norwood in the build up phase to progress the ball towards the channels and the wing area. Norwood specifically is responsible of circulation of the ball to find the perfect situation, mainly switching the ball quickly from one side of the field to the other with his accurate passes and also helping with the four man combinations on the right side.
The main idea of the overlapping of a center back is to have an extra player in a position that would be an advantageous position . This player would usually be the center back, but sometimes the pressure the center back causes by these runs actually frees the wing back.
In the infamous 3–3 draw at Villa Park last season, Sheffield United outplayed Aston Villa for 80 minutes to collapse in the final 14 minutes. The opener came from a corner as Sharp put the ball into the net. The corner though came initially from a free George Baldock in the right Channel. Basham’s overlapping run pinned Villa’s left back as Gary Madine pinned Villa’s left center back, Baldock now free in between the lines acting virtually as a number 10. Villa’s midfield returned and fouled Baldock, this foul resulted in the corner through which Sharp opened the scoring. Basham’s pressure by overlapping freed the wing back Baldock which eventually resulted in the opener.
In terms of the center back making the difference goals against Reading, West Bromwich Albion and Ipswich Town further showcases the power of this tactic. Against Reading, Baldock’s run behind the defence freed space for the overlapping Basham whose deflected cross reached Sharp. At the Hawthorns, Martin Cranie’s run on an offensive transition resulted in the only goal of the game. And in the game that relatively ensured promotion, O’Connell positioning gave Sheffield a 4 v 3 situation with the left center back advancing to cross the opener for Scott Hogan.
The Blades have scored multiple goals from this tactic but one shone out as it also featured different tactics that galvanize the overlapping of the center back. That goal is Sharp’s opener against Frank Lampard’s Derby County on Boxing day 2018. Moving the ball to the right side, Basham advanced searching for an overload as Sheffield maintained their wing area four man combinations. As they failed to find a gap Fleck moved the ball to the other side while Basham jogged backwards to defence maintaining the second law of Wilder dynamics which is one overlapping center back at a time. O’Connell advanced to help David McGoldrick who was now on the left wing as Enda Stevens the left wing back occupied the left channel. This switcheroo confused the Derby players, and with O’Connell thrusting forward the overload resulted in a free O’Connell. His exquisite left footed cross found Sharp’s header but what was noticeable was Baldock’s position as a striker rather than his usual place at right wing back. All these small details help make the overlapping of center backs work.
Wing Backs ? No, no more of midfielders
The wing back role is limited to the wing area in many back three systems, but in the Wilder environment this species has evolved into more than a touchline hugging mammal. Multiple theories revolve around this evolution, but the one that makes sense is to vacate space for the overlapping center back as if the wing back already occupies that space the center back can’t attack the free space because it doesn’t exist.
Moving the wing backs inside made them act as midfielders as they occupy the channels combining with wing play to free the center back or for them to create from the channels. As a result the Blades’ wing backs topped Opta’s full backs charts of open play xA per 90. Three wing backs featured in the list baring in mind that Kieron Freeman and Baldock occupy the same position.
Other than creating chances, the freedom resulting from opposition teams being paranoid about the overlapping center back often gives the wing backs scoring chances. In the opening game of the season, Baldock found himself completely free on the edge of the box, and side footed the ball calmly to give Sheffield United the lead. Another instance was away at Birmingham, the home side was so focused on covering the left channel and the left wing that they left the center open. Stevens moved inside and collected the ball then struck a powerful shot to hit the back of the net. Both occasions showed how the overlapping center back caused problems for the opponent and the wing backs were free to run riot.
All this is possible because of Baldock, Freeman and Stevens’ technical ability on the ball and multiple hours on the training ground drilling these movements, the same situation as with Basham and O’Connell. Defensively the overlapping center backs caused problems at first as Knill stated in the interview above. “ So we adjusted it a little bit” said Knill, the wing backs positioning in the channels on the edge of the box helped neutralize counter attacking threats through the center and channels as the wing backs were quick to win second balls around this area making sure that the defensive transition phase is as short as possible, to keep Sheffield United in the offensive possession phase.
Norwood’s magic space
“You’re not going to make it at Manchester United but one day you will be a Premier League player.” Sir Alex Ferguson told Norwood when the latter was leaving Manchester United in 2012. Norwood told his wife that he’ll get there one day, and he stuck to his word by earning three consecutive Premier League promotions with Brighton, Fulham and Sheffield United. But despite that the Northern Ireland midfielder never made a Premier League appearance as after each promotion he was loaned back to the Championship.
Groundhog day beckoned for Norwood but this time it’s different. “Playing in the Premier League has been my goal since I started playing at six and thankfully I’ve found a manager who will give me that chance.” Norwood told SunSport in an interview last May. Norwood has been key in Wilder’s gear train, probably the most important gear of them all as he’s the one who links every gear together. Dictating play from deep, quick cross field diagonal passes, four man combinations on the right wing, and covering for the overlapping center back. Norwood does it all, and deservedly he was named in the PFA Championship team of the year.
The Northern Irish magician still has one trick up his sleeve, and he only saves it for the big shows. Overlapping center backs, wing backs as midfielders and roaming strikers all this gives opponents headaches but as they quarantine that threat Norwood rises from his magic space. Located in the wing lane between the edge of the penalty box and a couple of meters after the half way line, Norwood finds himself free as the opponent are desperate to contain the center backs and wing backs.
From that space Norwood’s crosses rarely disappoint and against QPR the defenders were overwhelmed by Stevens’ roam to the right area of the field plus the wing back-center back combination of Baldock and Basham that they left Norwood free in his magical space. Norwood’s one touch cross found the head of McGoldrick who scored the only goal of the game. Norwood assisted a similar goal away to Ipswich Town but this time it was Sharp on the end of the cross.
Sheffield United work on set pieces religiously as after wing play it’s their greatest goal threat. Norwood’s magic space features heavily in this category as the midfielder’s crosses aren’t only limited to open play. Identical goals versus Villa, Preston North End, Bolton and Middlesbrough aren’t a matter of coincidences. It’s probably magic
The Winger number 10
The number 10 position is often occupied by a flair player roaming between the lines searching for space to create or score. However like everything in the Wild Wilder West the number 10 position operates differently. Mark Duffy who was a right winger through out his career plays as a number 10 in Wilder’s system. Roaming to the wing area to help with four man combinations to free the center back, play the wing back in the channel or to catalyze Norwood’s magic space. Duffy’s tasks as a number 10 is to operate the wings rather than the center.
His assists and xA (0.24 per 90 according to Opta) above further shows his exclusiveness to the wing area as most of his assists and dangerous chances he created come from the right wing. This can also be seen in his assists against Millwall and Norwich City. At the Den, he played a one-two with Freeman on the right wing to tee up Sharp who as usual headed it into the back of the net. At Carrow Road, he maintained his position on the right wing as Baldock moved inside. It was once again Sharp, the pantomime villain on the end of Duffy’s cross to snatch a point from the eventual Championship winners Norwich.
Fielding a winger as the number 10 sounds niche at first, but in the context of Sheffield’s heavy wing oriented system it works perfectly as it enhances and complements the other features. Duffy’s probable exit from Sheffield United is a blow to the team as Wilder told the Sheffield Star “He (Duffy) won’t dictate to me when he signed a new contract and neither will his agent. It’s as simple as that. We told him that and he wanted to pursue different options. He wanted to do that and I gave him the weekend off to do that”. Looking to the half full part of the glass though this could mean a new tweak to Wilder’s system which could prove interesting and unpredictable against Premier League oppositions.
Movements of the strikers
23 and 15 league goals for Sharp and McGoldrick respectively is enough to warrant their performances this season but the strikers don’t live on an island waiting for the daily cargo of assists. Their involvement in the build up phase and four man combinations helps the gear train in terms of fluidity. Add to that the vacation of space for others to attack which brings an unpredictability factor to the team.
Out of the two it’s McGoldrick who drops more to help with the build up phase and four man combinations on the wing. The striker has a free role anywhere on the pitch, sometimes popping up next to Norwood in midfield to offer a passing option. McGoldrick always tries to provide a passing option to any of his team mates whose normal passing options are neutralized. An example of that was against Sheffield Wednesday in the Steel Derby when Wednesday tried to mirror Sheffield United’s formation playing a 3 v 3 in midfield but McGoldrick constantly dropped to the left side of midfield forming a diamond with Norwood on the right. Now a 4 v 3 Sheffield United midfield’s gained the upper hand.
Even when oppositions try to flood the wing area to drown Sheffield’s system it’s the strikers who act as passing options trying to gain the attention of the opponent’s players from the wing area. Then only to play it back to the wing area which is now freer.
The other part of their movements is to vacate space for other players to occupy, mainly the wing backs who are positioned in the channels but take a striker role if one of the strikers drops to aid the four man combinations on the wings. This means that despite the striker dropping to help wing play, there’s still a target in the box for the cross. Sharp and McGoldrick’s movements against Derby earlier on in the season gave problems for Lampard’s team throughout the first half, and eventually was behind the equalizer through Basham. Sharp moved out to the left wing as McGoldrick dropped in a number 10 position, completely freeing the penalty box. Freeman pounced on this and moved inside the box to be the striker while Derby ‘s defence were bamboozled as they didn’t know who to mark. Freeman was relatively free as defenders were late to catch him, but Basham the overlapping center back was completely free with acres of space. Fleck’s low cross fell to Basham who netted it comfortably.
Another goal which illustrates the importance of these movements was the second goal away to Rotherham. Sharp again on the left side of the penalty box seeking to combine with Duffy and Fleck. The striker provided an excellent passing option for Fleck then crossed towards the far post. Basham and Freeman were in position doubling up against Rotherham’s left back. With both players winning the aerial duel it was Basham who scored.
Wing backs now go from midfielders to strikers as the dynamic approach of Wilder elevates.
Covering the advancing center back
An overlapping center back is hard to implement as it hampers the structure of the team and leaves them vulnerable on the counter. Sheffield United’s ability to maintain the structure of the team and not play a gung-ho approach is what makes this tactic more impressive.
So how does it work ? Once the center back advances the midfielder on the opposite sides keeps his place in the center of the field to help the defenders as the other midfielder on the near side is helping with four man combinations. In the above example, it would be Basham advancing while Norwood helps with four man combinations and Fleck keeping his position. As for the rest of the back three they shift into a two man defence in a back four structure, playing high up the pitch to maintain vertical compactness. The wing backs are in the channels on the edge of box ready to go inside the midfield to prevent any threat during the transitions.
The players in any certain position of the above could vary but nevertheless there always exists a player on the opposite side covering the midfield, two center backs, and players in the channels ready to go inside to deny the threat of any counter.
Wilder also moves around the 3–4–1–2 during the defensive phase to neutralize the opponent. Sheffield players’ adaptation to numerous switches and formations only speaks highly of their tactical understanding.
If a high pressing system is going to be implemented the wing backs press as wingers while center backs cover as full backs meanwhile Duffy drops deeper into midfield either in a flat midfield three or on the right in an inverted triangle. This press inside the channels or in the wing area is to attack the opponent’s build up through the sides while ensuring the midfield is not vulnerable.
When moving to a medium/low block Duffy drops to form a 5–3–2 shape and in the case of needing another player to completely shut down the midfield McGoldrick drops as Sheffield move to a midfield flat four in a 5–4–1 shape. Furthermore, if the opponent is depending on a deep lying playmaker or a deep mover of the ball Duffy maintains his position as a number 10 to man mark that player.
In the game against Leeds at Elland Road Basham started in a midfield three next to Norwood and Fleck. Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds were seeking to push their full backs high up the pitch to create free men towards the far post. Sheffield’s 5–3–2 switched into a 4–4–2 while defending as Stevens pushed higher up the pitch. Stevens the left wing back and Basham who was playing as a right midfielder on the day had tasks to contain Leeds’ full backs. Attacking wise, Sheffield’s main approach was to attack the space behind Leeds’ left back using Basham’s runs from midfield. Basham had a chance before half time running into the right channel but he missed it. In the second half he managed to score when on an offensive transition he thrust from midfield attacking the space behind Leeds’ left back Barry Douglas. This was Sheffield United’s most effective game of the season with a significant defensive performance from center back John Egan.
Chris Wilder managed to pick up the LMA Manager of the year award beating the likes of Pep Guardiola and Juergen Klopp, and an extra medal of honor was Bielsa’s comments on his team. “The team’s performance talk about the coach they have. The team says a lot about their coach and I have learnt a lot from Sheffield United, it’s one of the teams that I have learnt the most from this season. They have a new style of playing and they have been faithful to their style during the whole season” Bielsa stated before their encounter at Elland Road.
When asked about the season and promotion Wilder told talkSport that “It’s about knitting a team together, organisation, team spirit, work ethic and tactically playing in a way that suits you to gain results.” The next quote however is the one that struck a chord for all English football followers. “There’s a lot said about foreign coaches but hopefully I’ve given a ray of light to English coaches that can do it. I know there are a lot of coaches out there that can do it” He added. For all the years hearing mid table Premier League English coaches say that they can play expansive exciting football if they had a better team with better quality of players, it was about time an English manager presents an exhibition from League One to the Premier League while maintaining their unique style — Eddie Howe obviously also deserves a mention here.
Sheffield United might be forged in steel, but Wilder’s version is forged in Nitinol.