Sheffield United battling for the Europa League positions received Everton in a game that did not have much of a Premier League game in itself. Low tempo with only a few chances created, each team ending the game with an xG below one. The Toffees without deserving it scored on a set-piece at the start of the second half leaving the Blades five points away of the 6th position occupied by Wolverhampton, with Tottenham Hotspur also positioned above.
In this tactical analysis, we are going to show how Chris Wilder’s wide combination tactics did not work, and why did Carlo Ancelotti’s team lack of offensive support did not allow the team to expand the difference. This analysis will explain why the game ended up with so few chances created by both sides.
Chris Wilder deployed his typical 3-5-2 formation with his first choice back three Jack O’Connell, John Egan, and Chris Basham starting back again for the second time since the restart of the season. No changes with the last game defeat against Leicester United with David Mc Goldrick and Oliver Mc Burnie as the two strikers.
Carlo Ancelotti made four changes starting with a 4-2-3-1 formation after the last draw against Aston Villa. Djibril Sidibé replaced Séamus Coleman at the right-back, and 18-year-old Jarrad Branthwaite was starting a Premier League game for the first time. The other two changes came in the midfield with Gylfi Sigurðsson replacing wide midfielder Bernard and positioned as number 10. Theo Walcott was returning to the lineup on Alex Iowbi’s position.
The first half left little to be analyzed as the tempo was low with a lot of mistakes and not many chances created, 0.24 xG for the Blades, and 0.33xG for the Toffees. Everton accounted for higher ball possession in the first half due to the way they built-up out from the back. The Blades started the game waiting in the middle third conceding ball possession to the Toffees who played the ball out from the back.
For the first minutes, the Blades only used their front two to press Everton’s build-up, allowing the Toffees to progress the ball with ease. With only two players pressuring, Everton only needed one of the pivots which linked the ball to the free centre-back. In the next shot, we can see how André Gomez positioned centrally could receive the ball from Jordan Pickford and link with the free right centre-half. Sheffield’s forwards were lonely ending up in dummies runs playing a 4v2 in the defensive third, which gave Everton a maximum of 66% of possession in the first 15 minutes.
Chris Wilder’s team reacted quickly and shifted into a higher pressing team using his midfield line much higher in the pitch, dropping the PPDA from 10.6 to 8.8 in the second third of the half. The midfield three men line step up closer to the first line of pressure, marking the pivots and the full-back on the ball-side. Even though the pressing was much more effective in reducing the time and space to progress the ball, the Toffees managed to keep advancing the ball using the full-backs. With this high press of two lines of five players, the Toffees used the back four plus the two pivots to create numerical superiority in their half, as shown in the next picture. In this scenario, once the Blades defensively overloaded one flank, the pivots were in charge of switching the ball to the weak side, finding the full-back free to run forward and beat the two lines of pressure.
Ancelotti displayed a 4-2-3-1 formation when in-possession that gave the team a second option when building-up. Everton used a direct play if the Blades pressure was sufficient enough to lock the build-up in the flank. In these scenarios, the centre-halves played long and direct balls to the lonely striker who was stretching the defensive line, as shown in the next shot. Dominic Calvert-Lewin pinned two of the three centre-halves, creating a significant gap in the Blades lines that was exploited by Sigurðsson or the wide wings who tucked in.
Sheffield wide play
Wilder formation 3-5-2 favours the use of the wide channels to attack with the two wing-backs getting into the final third to cross the ball. What has been the registered mark 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. In the next picture, we can see the numerical and positional superiority as the players kept different depths between the Toffees lines.
The attacking patterns of the wide centre-halves had created admiration in Chris Wilder style, but being something used since playing in the Championship, the strategy now is anticipated by rivals diminishing their effectiveness. The Italian coach used one of the pivots to follow the wide receiver when they participated in the final third. We can see this support given by the left pivot in the following picture when Basham underlapped George Baldock; Tom Davies nullified the wide overload.
The lack of support inside the box for the crosses reduced the chances created by the Blades. The blades overload one flank using the three midfielders and the ball-side striker; this left the weak side striker as the lone option to score from the crosses as depicted in the following picture. Three-on-one inside the box with the support players just arriving into the box left the odds to score on a second ball shallow. All the scoring opportunities came from the flanks, with only a 0.76 xG in the whole game.
Everton could not take advantage of the Blades gaps
After Richarlison scored the only goal of the game, the Blades offensive approach to draw the game in their 3-5-2 formation gave space for the Toffees to collect the ball between the defensive three and the middle line. Ancelotti formation in-possession, as aforementioned, was a 4-2-3-1 with Calvert-Lewin stretching the defensive line and the middle three positioning in between the lines. We can see this structure from the following chart, albeit what did not work for the Toffees was progressing the ball into the final third. The ball was collected far away from the goal, giving time for the Blades to recover. Moreover, we see from the graph that the team clearly broke into two parts, the back four with the pivots and the front four, due to this the Toffees only managed to create 0.19 xG in the second half.
The Toffees used two ways to get in between the gaps left by the Blades line; one was the same direct play used in the first half. Long balls played into Calvert-Lewin, who was always marked by two of the Blades centre-halves. He managed to lay off some of that balls into the advanced three of the Toffees, as depicted in the following picture with Sigurðsson receiving the ball. These plays did not create much danger as the middle line of the Blades recover with ease and outnumber the attack.
The other way in which the Toffees exploited the gaps between the lines was using a positional play, again with Calvert-Lewin being instrumental in these plays stretching the back three with his runs. Even though Ancelotti’s team manage to progress some balls through these positional plays, the front four did not receive any support from the pivots neither from the full-backs on the wide areas. In the next picture, we can see how the ball was played into the pocket, albeit the lack of support to the front four left them outnumbered without options to progressing the ball further
This game was the weakest for both teams since the restart of the season, with the only positive thing on the visitor’s side earning three-points. The Blades could not exploit their well known wide game, and the Toffee’s lack of offensive support left a game with just four shots on target, split in two for each team in the whole match.
Chris Wilder’s team is still on mathematical chances of accessing the European competitions, but competing with big teams looks is not going to become real. None of this should demerit the exceptional performance of the Blades for being the first year in the Premier League. Some improvements have been seen in the Toffees since Carlo took the manager position, but lots need to be improved thinking next season if this team wants to return to the European cups.