Sheffield United got into this game with the possibility of getting into the fifth position of the Premier League table after Manchester United left 2 points in their visit to Tottenham Hotspur. Meanwhile, Newcastle United were needing points to get breadth from the relegation positions in what was the first game they played after 106 days.
Based on the table and on the fact that the Magpies were playing for the first time since the season halt, the Blades were placed as favourites to win this game, although the opposite happened in the end with a significant margin of 3-0. The locals gave possession to the Blades, forcing them to play wide while denying their possibility to create chances by using a counter-attacking style.
This tactical analysis will consider the tactics used by Steve Bruce to control the game defensively, outperforming Chris Wilder’s known style brought from the EFL Championship. This analysis will explain how the Magpies controlled the game through their defensive style, allowing the Blades to possess the ball and using fast transitioning into offensive positions.
Newcastle only presented one change from their last game in their March win over Southampton with Joelinton in place of Dwight Gayle, who was on the bench. Bruce displaced the preferred formation of 4-4-1-1, with Miguel Almirón playing as the number 10 and two double pivots with Jonjo Shelvey and Isaac Hayden. The two offensive wide-mids were Allan Saint-Maximin and Matt Ritchie who scored one goal each.
From the Wednesday game against Aston Villa, John flick returned in the middle, replacing John Lundstram. Sheffield played in their famous 3-5-2 formation with the absence of one of the most critical players in their back-three, Jack O’Connell, who was missing for the second consecutive game and was replaced by Jack Robinson, who continues to deputise. After John Egan was sent off at the start of the second half, Wilder set a 4-3-2 formation sitting back both full-backs George Baldock and Enda Stevens.
The main characteristic of Bruce’s defensive philosophy is keeping defensive compactness, both horizontally and vertically. To use defensive compactness effectively, not only should short spaces be kept within your teammates, but also relative to the position of the opponents. The Magpies’ defensive compactness was perfectly achieved and was the main reason why they controlled the game without possessing the ball, ending the game with a ball possession of 45.6%.
Newcastle forced the Blades to play wide through their defensive compactness, blocking the central areas and gaining a spatial control over this part of the pitch. This is depicted in the next shot, in which we can see the midfield line of the Magpies in a short distance, with access to the ball carrier and blocking all the central passes. Also, the defence is close to the midfield line and at the same time, responsible for their marks maintaining the vertical compactness.
The Magpies’ defensive compactness created a spatial control not only in the central areas as the team shuffled compactly, creating defensive overloads once the ball was played to the wide channel. The short distances between players create a numerical superiority, reducing the passing lanes and giving more defensive access to press the ball carrier in the flank. The defensive tactics were so effective that they kept the Blades at an xG of 0.51 in the whole game, not allowing any chance from the central area. In the next picture, we can see four Newcastle players controlling that wide area.
Sheffield wide attacking
The Magpies’ defensive compactness forced the Blades to use their wide attack more than ever. Wilder’s 3-5-2 formation favours the use of the wide channels to attack, with the two wing-backs getting into the final third to cross the ball. The hosts were ready for this and defended the Blades’ attacks with a numerical superiority inside the box, not suffering any danger from those crosses. In the next picture, we can see how Stevens had arrived at the final third and attempted a cross, without noticing that there were already six players of Newcastle against the two forwards, reducing the odds.
What has been the trademark from the Blades attack is the participation of the back-three in the attacking third. The wide centre-backs become essential in the final third, arriving into this zone by surprise, becoming dangerous as the opposing wingers won’t follow most of the time. These situations tend to create extra options in the flanks, outnumbering the defence in the wide areas, though this was not the case for this game.
As mentioned earlier, the Magpies shifted the team to the wide channels when the ball was played there, neutralising the overload created by the wide centre-backs. In the next picture, we can see that Robinson has collected the ball in the flank and was perfectly defended by the full-back as two other midfield players supported it. The xG generated from the left-flank was 0%.
What could have been an excellent weapon to defeat or break this defensive compactness was the isolation of the weak side and the shift of play. The Magpies’ compactness and the tactic used to shift the team to the ball-side leave great spaces to be exploited by rivals on the weak side. This was only used once by the Blades with a situation created, which ended with Sharp heading the cross in what was the second clearest situation of the game for Sheffield with an xG of 0.14. This is shown in the next picture, with the whole team of the Magpies shifting to the ball-side and Baldock being free in the weak-channel. The shift of play was achieved, and he placed a cross that was connected by Billy Sharp.
The Magpies combined their defensive compactness with a fast counter-attacking style. They release Joelinton from defensive duties of positioning with the last defender and Almirón, who played as number 10 to receive the ball and link with the Brazilian. As we mentioned earlier, the Blades used their wide centre-backs to attack in the wide areas. This left a one-v-one scenario when the Magpies counter-attacked, which we can see in the next picture. After Sain-Maximin recovered the ball, he connected with Almirón behind the midfield line and turned to create a one-v-one situation, connecting with Joelinton who missed the chance.
The Magpies use one midfield player who joins the counter-attack, most of the time being Saint-Maximin, the one in charge of participating in the counter-attacks due to his offensive attributes. Sheffield suffered from Newcastle’s counter-attacks all throughout the first half, with the Magpies having the best situations from these aggressive transitions.
Even though they were suffering from these counter-attacks all the first half, there was no tactical change in the rest-defence for the Blades, resulting in them suffering a red card from the counter-attack. In the next picture, the play in which Egan was sent off is shown. Again, the Magpies were counter-attacking the Blades, who were not prepared as happened in the whole game. It was a one-v-one scenario with Saint-Maximin joining the attack, and Egan was forced to stop Joelinton after he won possession, getting the second yellow card of the game.
Newcastle’s tactics with one more player.
After the red card, the Magpies stuck to their tactics, increasing their control of the game. They played nearly one half with one more player, and they kept defending compact with the aggregate of having numerical superiority in the field. In the next picture, we can see Joelinton dropping to defend and the whole team being compact. Close to the ball, there is an overload of 3 v 2. If we consider the entire shot, there are nine outfield players of Newcastle defending against only five of the Blades, increasing the superiority for the local team.
The only thing that changed from Bruce’s style of playing was in-possession, playing out from the back due to the superiority they had. The Blades shifted into a 4-3-2 formation and preferred to sit back and wait in a low block due to the red card. This encouraged the Magpies to build up from their defensive third, as they had numerical superiority. In the next picture, we can see Newcastle playing the ball from the back, in a five v two situation with the back-line plus Shelvey only being defended by the two forwards of the visitors.
This numerical superiority was transferred into the defensive transitions by the Magpies, punishing the Blades from this phase of the game in the last two goals. This superiority helped the Magpies to recover the ball faster once lost. Both goals came from defensive transitions in which they counter-pressed the Blades, winning the ball and then counter-attacking. In the next shot, we can see after the ball was lost, Joelinton and Shelvey counter pressed the Blades midfielder recovering the ball and assisting Ritchie, who was open in the wide-area to score from out of the box.
Before the game, it was a favourable one for the Blades, but it ended up as the worst defeat of their season. They had only conceded three goals once in this season, and it was in their 3-3 draw against Manchester United. This has not been a proper restart of the season for Sheffield with one draw and one defeat with no goals scored, but there are still only two points from United what would be a dream season for this recently promoted team.
The Magpies managed to control the game by sticking to their style to defend compact and counter-attack, gaining distance from the relegation places. Almirón has been rotating positions throughout the season, when playing as number 10 is when he has shown his best performances, as in this game being instrumental in their counter-attacks.