Sheffield United have endured a historically poor start to the Premier League this season, going into the fixture against Manchester United with just one point from 12 games, threatening a return to the Championship next season. Manchester United needed a victory to put themselves into the mix for Champions League qualification.
Despite taking an early lead, the blades found themselves 3-1 down towards the latter stages of the game, and even after another goal to make it 3-2 thanks to David McGoldrick, they were unable to complete the comeback. This leaves them with one point from 13 games – the worst start made by any team in Premier League history.
Manchester United, on the other hand, are now just two points away from 2nd place with a game in hand. This report will provide a tactical analysis of how both sides approached the game, with a scope on the tactics which allowed Manchester United to dismantle Sheffield United’s defence.
The hosts lined up with their 5-3-2 shape with the aim of limiting the chances their opponents could create in central areas. Wing-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens played pivotal roles both in defence and attack, giving support in both areas. Midfielder Sander Berge saw his night end early thanks to an injury, with blades legend Phil Jagielka coming on to replace him – he would slot into the back five, with Chris Basham joining the midfield. Veteran striker McGoldrick netted the two goals for the home side, putting in a brilliant performance, even aside from his two goals.
Visitors Manchester United named a strong line-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Former Sheffield United loanee Dean Henderson started in goal ahead of David De Gea, and ended up gifting his former side an early lead. Antony Martial lead the red devils in attack, with wide support coming from Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood. Donny Van de Beek still didn’t get himself into the starting 11, with Paul Pogba being partnered with Nemanja Matic in the middle of the park – Bruno Fernandes operated in front of the two deeper midfielders.
The Blades – Blunt in some areas, sharp in others
Desperate for a positive result against a strong side, Sheffield United approached the early stages of the game with intensity, not allowing Manchester United to hold onto possession for long. This was effective when the visitors tried playing keep-ball in and around their own penalty area. The instance below was particularly problematic.
Harry Maguire, with the ball at his feet around 10 yards from his own goal, had either left-back Alex Telles to pass to, although his positioning to receive the ball wasn’t great. Maguire’s only alternative, other than pumping the ball up-field, was to give the ball back to his goalkeeper. Oliver Burke applied good pressure to the pair, before upping the tempo even more as the ball rolled towards Henderson. Unable to control the ball, Henderson lost the ball to Burke, who was just about able to hook the ball back to an open McGoldrick, who slotted it home.
Although the goal happened because of Henderson’s error, Sheffield United deserve credit for approaching the early minutes this way – there were a few instances where the visitors struggled to play out of defence or keep possession because of the pressing of Chris Wilder’s side. Sheffield United only registered 40% possession, and made almost 200 fewer passes than their opponents, so they knew that any success they would have would come from moments where they caused an opposition mistake by pressing.
After a pleasing start for the hosts, they didn’t simply sit back to protect their lead. Below is an example of how Wilder’s men looked to capitalise on a possession turnover.
After some eye-catching individual work from Basham to bypass the Manchester United midfield, Burke found himself swarmed by Manchester United players; their shape was poor, however. Burke picked out John Fleck in acres of space. Despite a strong first touch from the midfielder, his shot on goal was poor – but Sheffield United certainly had Manchester United worrying on that occasion.
From a Manchester United perspective, the defensive set up is just wrong. Granted, this was a counter-attack of sorts, and they are always difficult to defend. But the issue for the visitors didn’t come from them not having enough bodies back, but where those bodies were. As highlighted, there are as many as five United players in close proximity to each other, all who have been dragged over towards to the ball, rather than focusing on marking other players – Fleck for example.
While much of the problem for the Blades this season has been in the attacking department, their defensive set-up this time around cost them dearly. It is well-documented that they are missing the presence of Jack O’Connell, and they have struggled in replacing him with a player of the same calibre.
Playing a fairly high line if risky enough when you’re up against players with pace like Martial, Rashford, and Greenwood, but when you execute it in this fashion, you’re asking for trouble. While three of the back five are in-line, looking to catch the opponent runners offside, Baldock and Jagielka are a couple of yards deeper, allowing the visitors to send one ball over the top for Rashford to collect. The first touch and finish were both immaculate from the England international, but Sheffield United could have prevented this with better communication and organisation.
This wasn’t a one-off, either. We saw the visitors attempt a ball in behind the defence on numerous occasions – they had clearly recognised the lack of organisation in the back four of the home side and for that, they deserve credit.
Manchester United’s attacking tactics
As mentioned, Sheffield United’s lack of organisation at the back invited the away side to attempt a more direct approach of play, utilising their pace and quality to overcome the physicality of the home side.
Firstly, looking at the defensive set-up again – Jack Robinson is positioned some yards deeper than his teammates, again offering Man United the chance to get in behind. Credit must go to Paul Pogba, whose first time pass, over the defence, into the path of Martial, was a glimpse of brilliance. Martial’s pace allowed him to break free from John Egan, putting him in a one-on-one situation with Aaron Ramsdale, who should’ve done better with the situation. Martial took advantage of the slice of luck and poor keeping, making it 2-1 to the visitors.
Aside from the last line of defence, from a Sheffield United standpoint, questions could be asked of the midfielders, who were perhaps guilty of allowing their opponents too much time and space, which allowed Pogba to position himself to play the pass which resulted in a goal. However, good teams take advantage of the weaknesses of their opponents, which is exactly what Man United did with their repeated efforts of lofting balls in behind the defence.
Another method explored by the eventual victors was having their striker and two wide men all play narrowly, with the full-backs pushing on to offer more support.
As we can see in this image, United did exactly that. With Fernandes joining the shape, it essentially became a front four at times, making it very difficult for Sheff United to handle. As mentioned wide support would come from Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the right or Telles on the left. Not only did this give the red devils more passing options, but it also forced the blades to assign a defender to track them to limit their availability, but of course this would stretch the defensive shape, making space for passes and runs.
Another interesting feature of this tactic was having Pogba hanging back slightly deeper than those mentioned above. His role was to offer support to recycle possession high up the pitch, utilising his footwork and passing ability. His physicality would also prove to be helpful to as he would apply a counterpress in his area if Sheffield regained possession and looked to break out. Of course, behind Pogba would be Matic – it is noteworthy that the two would often rotate these roles between themselves as the game progressed.
This tactical analysis demonstrated two sides who are desperate for points for different reasons. Sheffield United, longing for their first Premier League victory of the season to boost their hopes of surviving in the top flight, remain with the single point after 13 games.
However, many of their defeats are by just one goal, as this fixture was. This shows the character of the squad and the desire to stay in the game.
They lack a certain creative quality in midfield, while their strikers are yet to hit the ground running. Meanwhile, Manchester United are now top four contenders thanks to this 3-2 win. Their consistency is their biggest flaw, as they have been known to drop points in games which they should be heavy favourites, but over the course of the season they have proven that they can compete with anybody in the Premier League.