Long Reads

The Tactical Evolution of Sheffield United Under Chris Wilder

Sheffield United - Bramall Lane stadium
Image: Mark Hawksworth

It has been clear for some time that Chris Wilder is one of the best coaches in England, not only since his rise to fame following Sheffield United’s promotion to the Premier League, but also considering the good work he did with lower league teams, making them effective and well-organised with a touch of flair in spite of the limitations of experienced EFL players.

With the assistance of the forward-thinking Alan Knill, Chris Wilder has generally set up with a three at the back formation, with three aggressive midfielders, two strikers and buccaneering wing-backs, who help provide overloads on either flank, where 70% of Sheffield United’s attacks usually come from. As well as the tactical astuteness of Wilder and Knill, their hard work and resilience have meant the Blades have overachieved massively during Wilder’s time at the club.

The Early Set Up

The best way to charter the progress of any manager is to look at their first game at the club and to see what similarities have remained ever since. (The buzzword for that at the moment is ‘identity.’)

Looking at their drab 1-0 defeat at the hands of Bolton Wanderers is probably not the best idea considering they played with neither three at the back, Chris Basham in midfield, nor the intensity they play with now. Looking at any team in the parameters of the lower echelons can be difficult in itself, particularly if they are one of the more respected sides in that division. Nineteen out of the twenty-four teams will almost certainly sit behind the ball if you are a Sheffield United or a Sunderland, as the technical prowess of those teams usually exceeds that of Tranmere or Wycombe. So, no matter if you are Pep Guardiola or Tony Pulis, teams will primarily look to leave with a point.

What you can certainly decipher from EFL football though is how the type of players a team plays with could contribute to the thinking later on. John Fleck, Chris Basham, Jack O’Connell and Billy Sharp all played for Sheffield United in Chris Wilder’s first game in charge, away at the Macron. From that, you get an idea of the core beliefs Wilder and Knill implemented from day one: organisation merged with a touch of skill. For every Jack O’Connell, who is willing to give his body to Sheffield United, there is a John Fleck who will mix hard work with a high degree of quality in possession; Wilder’s teams in a nutshell.

There was trouble early on at Sheffield United. For the first half a dozen games, they were torn between a more regimented 4-4-2 formation, used under Nigel Adkins the previous season, and Wilder’s 3-5-2 formation, which was highlighted never more clearly than in the goal they conceded against Rochdale in Wilder’s first home game.

The style of football played under Adkins was more traditional EFL football than Wilder’s desired style, so there was an inevitable crossover period where Sheffield United started to concede goals in transition due to their desire to keep the ball more and shift to the formation they are so well renowned for playing now. Here, Sheffield United attempted to move the ball across from one wing back to another while Rochdale broke and found spaces in between the gaps between the right and left central defenders.

Although it cost them early on in Wilder’s reign, the shift to three central defenders during the Bolton game (where they started with 4-4-2 and later dropped Basham into a central defender’s berth) is a prime example of a quality manager installing his beliefs into a squad from day one and trusting it to grow, rather than sticking with the previous manager’s safe yet antiquated ideas. Wilder was brave and Sheffield United are now reaping the rewards as they chase a place in Europe, in the top half of the Premier League.

In League One, Sheffield United could be described as a ‘possession-based’ side; such was their comfort on the ball, albeit within the parameters of League One. However, they have never really been a team that play ‘total football’ in the spirit of La Masia, even though they played with more tempo, created overloads and loved nothing more than whipping crosses in for two good strikers. Sheffield United’s tough spell did not last long. They won League One playing a much more sustainable brand of football than that which was played under Adkins or any of the other previous post-Warnock managers. Crucially, it was propelled by Wilder’s belief in his players and their belief in him.

3-4-1-2: In the Championship

In the majority of cases, teams who go up a division struggle to adapt and are usually in a relegation battle in their first year. This has never been the case with Sheffield United under Wilder. For a chunk of their first season in the Championship, they were in line for back to back promotions but the quality of Wolves, Cardiff, Fulham and even the likes of Aston Villa (Jack Grealish) pushed them away towards the latter stages. However, it always felt as if they were in good shape and at any time they could be in line for a go at Premier League football.

In all seriousness, the quality Sheffield United play with and the fact that they are a complete unit on and off the pitch, which contrasts their low budget; previous lack of identity to rally behind; and last summer’s tumultuous ownership row, proves what most have known for a while – Chris Wilder is a top coach and has performed a miracle.

In terms of tactics in the Championship, Sheffield United continued to hone the 3-5-2 formation that had made Wilder and Knill successful previously. Their setup was built on attacking football with defensive resilience and organisation. Usually, the line-up consisted of Henderson, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Baldock, Norwood, Duffy, Fleck, Stevens, McGoldrick and Sharp.

Teams play with a three at the back and will continue to do so, yet no one really plays like Sheffield United. The majority of their attacks still come from down either flank. The left and right centre backs will overlap the wing back, who usually occupies the space on the edge of the box, available to throw a cross in if either full back cuts it back or will occupy a man. This is how Sheffield United create overloads to pull defensive players out of position especially in the Championship where more teams employed a low block against Chris Wilder’s team.

Struggling Bolton was the Championship’s go-to low block team for the 2018/19 season. Sheffield United found playing against them much easier than more attacking teams did, despite their relative lack of numbers due to their formation. Their bravery, however, and ability to create overloads on the flanks was more useful against a side like Bolton than that of any other.

Bolton would have liked to have had ten men in a 4-5-1 formation on the edge of their own box, with three central midfielders shielding, the wide midfielders on each corner of the box and the back four within the width of the penalty area. This is not possible against Sheffield United, their ability to move teams around is a testament to Wilder, as attacking down either wing pulls players out of position ensuring that there is less defenders in the area to head the ball way. In the simplest of terms, Sheffield United’s formation allows there to be numerical advantages in every area of the pitch. Couple that with the culture Wilder has instilled in the club and it can be no surprise that Sheffield United are now enjoying the same success in the Premier League.

Interestingly, in the Championship, Sheffield United used a number ten, Mark Duffy. His duties were fourfold: to make late runs into the box, help join up play on the edge of the box, help join up play on either flank, and to join in with the first line of press. His joining up of play was particularly effective in breaking down low block sides. Meanwhile, his pressing bore results against teams who played out from the back like Leeds; Sharp and McGoldrick pressed from each side, and Duffy pressed centrally to make the press uniform across the pitch, not too dissimilar to Man United’s approach under Ole Gunnar Solskjear with Andreas Pereira and now Bruno Fernandes.

The Basic Setup

Sheffield United in the Premier League have almost invariably ditched the number ten in their midfield and opted for a simpler 3-5-2 formation, playing more pragmatically.

In the EFL, Sheffield United and Wilder often dominated the ball as they were better than most sides and as a result more feared. In the Premier League, that is not the case. At the start of the season, they were favourites for relegation with the know-it-alls at TalkSport calling them ‘basic’ and a certain host calling Wilder a ‘dinosaur’ at one point. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sheffield United are one of the most forward-thinking teams in the league.

Sheffield United and Norwich both played an expansive brand of football in the Championship, yet Norwich are a distant 20th and Sheffield United are closing in on the top six. The difference is how they have decided to adapt to the Premier League, where teams punish you more, have better defences and a great deal more experience than either side.

The Blades have not ripped up what they were good at previously – their full backs still overlap, they still play with three defenders and still play two up front, the difference is their hard work without the ball, their shape and their unbelievable defensive record.

Everton 0-2 Sheffield United (September 2019)

After this game, Chris Wilder admitted he had no idea how his side had won the game, having two shots with one on target and 30% possession. It was a further example of how Sheffield United could easily cope in the Premier League: with defensive diligence and making it difficult for the opposition, who played into their hands.

Sheffield United played with a 3-5-2 formation for this game but at times, Chris Wilder’s men played in a very compact and deep 5-3-2. The back five defended on the edge of the box, the three midfielders shielded the penalty area to prevent Gylfi Sigurdsson from getting on the ball, and the two strikers played higher up to discourage Everton’s full backs (Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne) from going forward, with particular emphasis on disrupting the partnership between Lucas Digne and Bernard on the left.

In their 5-3-2 shape, Sheffield United were very adept at blocking passing lanes in the final third between Bernard or Sigurdsson and Richarlison and Kean. This limited the gaps between the centre backs and the wings backs, forcing Everton out wide for the majority of the game where Everton’s Moise Kean struggled to win any aerial duels up against Chris Basham, John Egan and Jack O’Connell. Although this became the go-to way of beating Everton under Marco Silva, Sheffield United mastered it, forcing Silva to make substitutes that lost Everton’s shape, playing into Sheffield United’s hands.

Above is Sheffield United’s average positions for the game. Despite defending deep, they still pressed well, especially in wide areas. This was to limit the quality of Lucas Digne and on the other side the inside runs of Richarlison, yet still letting Everton play in front of them with Schneiderlin and Delph, only recycling the ball from one side to the other. Going forward, there is not a lot to be said about Sheffield United against Everton. They only created one meaningful chance in the whole game, as well as the own goal by Yerry Mina. But as usual, Sheffield United played in wide areas, attempting to break on Everton’s left when Lucas Digne pushed forwards or in the gap in Everton’s defence between Seamus Coleman and Michael Keane.

The game was significant for Sheffield United, it proved that they could adapt to play more defensively against teams who play with more flair in the Premier League and they were not going to just come to make the numbers up. They did not offer much going forward, and that has really been the story of their season; they have had the least amount of attempts on goal out of any team and they have not scored many goals but their defensive rigidity has proved Wilder is a tactically flexible coach and can set teams up to defend deep and break sides down.

Sander Berge

Typically, when pointing out an individual that has sparked interest from a team, you would go for someone that has played more than just a handful of times since joining, but Sheffield United’s January acquisition of Sander Berge is of interest. It marks a shift in thinking; from mainly acquiring workman-like EFL players, to identifying the up-and-coming European players that can help Sheffield United move from being a ‘one season wonder’ – as TalkSport will attest – to a side that is looking to cement themselves as a top half Premier League team.

Berge is physical and will fit in with what Wilder wants to do with Sheffield United in terms of commitment. He is also extremely good at keeping the ball, finding quality passes and linking up play. His performances for Genk in Europe are what caught many people’s eye but his consistency for the two years previous to that is what Wilder would have looked at. He is by no means a perfect midfielder. He is great in the air, in open play and tackling, but his overall defending is so-so and there will be an adjustment period for him in the final ten games of the season for the Blades to hopefully push on next season. Sheffield United had ditched the advanced midfielder role this season but it potentially could return with Berge filling the role of Mark Duffy in the EFL.

Going forward

Sheffield United are in a good place to become a well-drilled, yet good to watch, Premier League side. Although there is plenty of scepticism around how good they are, given that they have competed in the Premier League for not even a year yet, it is clear that Wilder has improved the club year on year. From a team that struggled to compete against Bolton in League One and defend quick transitions against Keith Hill’s Rochdale, Sheffield United are now only a matter of points away from a Champions League place. Kudos, Chris!

By Owen Parkes

About the author

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Owen Parkes

Owen Parkes, Everton fan and sports journalist. Follow him on twitter @owenparkes123 and check out his blog owenparkesblog.wordpress.com

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