The race for European football both was heating up as Sheffield United took on Wolverhampton Wanderers at Bramall Lane in the EPL. Sheffield United was coming off the back of a scrappy 1-1 draw at Burnley and a win would see them return to seventh and ahead of Arsenal. Wolves, on the other hand, suffered a damaging 0-2 defeat at home to Arsenal, which means they were three points off Manchester United, with the opportunity to go level on points. Both teams have enjoyed fantastic seasons thus far and are deserved in their positioning in terms of challenging for European places. Wolverhampton Wanderers, after only being promoted in 2018 are on the verge of securing European football for a second consecutive season which is some achievement. Sheffield United was only promoted in 2019 and to be challenging with the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and other traditional top six clubs is remarkable, to say the least. This clash was, therefore, a clash between two teams who have achieved a significant amount and two teams who have long-term ambitions.
A last-minute John Egan header earned Sheffield United a 1-0 victory in a game that was scrappy, hardly contested and not filled with much end to end football. It was the tale of two excellent defensive units, where both sides were able to keep the opposition out for the majority of the game. The win moves Sheffield United into seventh and only four points off fifth place. Wolves will be disappointed with the loss. They remain six points off fifth-placed Manchester United, with the Red Devils beating Aston Vill last night. It is unlikely that they will finish in the Champions League places given the form of Leicester, Chelsea and Manchester United, however, obtaining a Europa League place should be attainable for both clubs.
This tactical analysis will look at the tactics of both sides and highlight why Sheffield United was able to narrowly edge out in this fixture. This analysis will also examine how two teams with similar defensive shapes cancelled each other out for the majority of the game.
Sheffield United lined up in a 5-3-2 formation. Dean Henderson, as ever, started in goal. Chris Basham, John Egan and the returning Jack O’Connell made up the back three. George Baldock and Enda Stevens were the wing-backs. Their job, as usual, was to get forward and provide attacking support. Sander Berge, Oliver Norwood, and Ben Osborn were the three central midfielders. They would have the job of controlling the game and moving the ball forward in a quick manner. Billy Sharp and Oliver McBurnie were the forward two. They would have the responsibility to provide hold up play and a presence upfront to trouble the Wolves defence.
Wolverhampton lined up in a 5-3-2 formation. Rui Patrício started in between the sticks. The back three were made of Conor Coady, Willy Boly, and Romain Saïss. Jonny Castro and Matt Doherty were the two full-backs looking to provide the natural width when Wolves went forward. Rúben Neves and João Moutinho made up the midfield two. They would be the creative hub of the team and both had enjoyed successful seasons thus far. Adama Traoré, Diogo Jota, and Raúl Jiménez were the front three. Their natural pace and excellent goal scoring ability would be crucial in the way that Wolves looked to attack the opposing defensive line.
Sheffield United’s overlap
An aspect of Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United which has caused many opposition teams problems this season is their overlapping system which gives them a numerical advantage in wider areas. The system itself is built on tactical intelligence which suits the Sheffield United squad. Since Wolves also played with five at the back, using the overlap in wider areas was important in displacing Wolves’ usual defensive organisation. The system itself has been shown throughout the season, however, a significant point of analysis must be to show how they used it against Wolves who also play with five at the back. The Blades played with three central midfielders and when they looked to move down a particular side, the central midfielder that was based on that side, i.e, Osborn on the left and Berge on the right, would take up a more central position to open up a passing lane. This would, therefore, allow the centre-back on that side and the wing-back to also push wide and the three players would form a triangle to try to displace the Wolves wing-back and winger depending on the side.
This may seem complex without an example, so its important to highlight this in the context of the game. We can see Stevens on the ball and O’Connell making an overlapping run into the space in behind Doherty. Osborn, the left-sided central midfielder can find a space in between Doherty and Traoré. This not only forces Traoré to come back and defend, but it also means that a triangle is formed whereby the three can attempt to play through Traoré and Doherty to get the ball into a more dangerous position. The fact that Wolves play with five at the back means that Boly was often covering, however, the intention was always there to get in behind on the flanks.
To counter the Sheffield United system of overlapping, teams have often lined up with five at the back to prevent themselves from becoming a victim of this clever tactical setup. The likes of Manchester United and Arsenal made tactical tweaks when going to Sheffield United in order to prevent this from happening. This is a testament to the effectiveness of the system itself. However, as also has been mentioned, Wolves’ system is always with the five defenders and they are, therefore, used to playing such a system. This, therefore, made the challenge for Sheffield United a lot harder as they were trying to break down a defensive structure which is extremely strong in keeping clean sheets. Wolves rank sixth for highest clean sheets with 11. Therefore, the solution of using overlaps in the wider areas was a good way of overcoming Wolves’ strong defensive shape.
As mentioned, a triangle often formed depending on the side that the ball was on. Traoré, as mentioned, was often forced back to help deal with this, which meant he couldn’t be situated in a position higher up the pitch where he could lead the counter-attack as he does for Wolves. This numerical overlap was, therefore, a key pillar in breaking down the defensive solidity that Wolves have in place.
Below is another example of this. We can see the ball with Stevens and O’Connell in front of him on the left side. Traoré is almost at the centre of this triangle which can almost be seen as a rondo training exercise. This again was with the intention of dragging Doherty and Traoré out of their usual positions and finding space in dangerous areas. Although this did not always come off, the intention was clear.
Wolves’ low block
The lineups sheet suggests that Wolves were lined up in a 5-2-3 formation, however, when they didn’t have the ball this always transformed into a 5-4-1 and Wolves used a deeper low block to prevent Sheffield United creating chances. When we say deeper low block, we are referring to Wolves being deep within their half and not pressing high up the pitch. The back five were situated in front of their 18-yard box with the two central midfielders and wingers just in front and Jiménez up front on his own.
As will be mentioned later, they intended to counter-attack and use the pace of Traoré, and Jota to hurt the Sheffield United defence. The distances between the defensive line and the midfielders in front of them are also something worth analysis. When they do not have the ball and they are implementing the low block and the spaces between the midfielders and defenders are limited to prevent the creative players from the opposing team from receiving the ball on the edge of the area. This is not only an amazing defensive work, however, but it also gives them a real platform to build on when they go forward on the counter-attack, as will be discussed.
This has been evident in Wolves’ game throughout not only this season but through last season also. In games away from home against the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool, they also commit to this low block. Sheffield United must also be considered as one of the better teams this season, perhaps not at the level of the teams just mentioned. This, therefore, meant that implementing the low block throughout this game and denying spaces was of the utmost importance.
Below is an excellent example of this defensive shape. We can see the Wolves players situated very deep in their half, which we can label the deep low block. It also meant that Sheffield United would struggle to play in behind Wolves’ defensive line as there was limited space to work with. This, therefore, meant that the likes of Sharp and McBurnie were effectively nullified during the game. This is often dismissed as strikers having a bad game, however, we must also acknowledge the role that the defensive unit of Wolves had in this.
It was a surprise to see Wolves starting with 5-2-3 from the start of the game. Since the Premier League returned in June, they were starting games with the 5-3-2 with Leander Dendoncker making up an extra body in central midfield to allow Neves and Moutinho to be freer and go forward to support the two strikers. However, this game saw Jota start from the beginning and when analysing the game, it is clear to see that this was to adapt to Sheffield United’s overlapping game. This was discussed earlier, however, it is important to see how this translated into the low block. As there was the threat of Jota, Traoré, and Jiménez to worry about, it meant that Sheffield United could not go all out to try and attack Wolves and break them down. This, therefore, slowed the game down and allowed Wolves to stay switched on and in shape throughout the game. When they then won the ball back, they were in an excellent position to move forward in transitions and hit Sheffield United on the counter-attack.
This, therefore, highlights the link between having a solid defensive organisation and excellent counter-attacking. It is something that Wolves do very well, and it highlights why their ability to break at pace is occurring on a regular basis. As mentioned, this has often been seen in the games against tougher opponents and teams that like to keep the ball.
Below is an example of this. We can once again see Wolves in the low block. However, take notice of the positions that the front three take up. Although they are focused on defending their space and not allowing Sheffield United the opportunity to get through the middle, when the ball is won back they will be ready to gallop forward on the counter-attack.
Wolves’ Front Three
Despite Wolves looking to counter-attack as a front three, a specific piece of analysis that must be undertaken is to look at why Wolves struggled to break down Sheffield United when it was their turn to sit deep in defensive solidity. The player that could have been key in helping Wolves score more goals was Jiménez who, when Wolves were looking to break down Sheffield United, was finding space in behind the midfield line and in front of the defensive line. Neves only managed one pass into Jiménez and Moutinho only managed five. This shows that the Wolves central midfield was not able to find Jiménez on a regular basis, who was finding some excellent positions. Had he been found on a more regular basis, they could have broken down what was a rigid Sheffield United defensive line.
The most common pass combination between two Wolves players was Coady to Boly, which highlighted the main problem Wolves had when they had the ball they were not clinical enough with their passing. Sheffield United did an excellent job on Wolves’ midfield, as will be discussed, Wolves were not able to find the killer passes into key areas which could have hurt Sheffield United. They were excellent on the counter-attack, however, this seemed to be their only outlet when trying to attack Sheffield United.
Below is an example of the space that Jiménez was often picking up without being found. This is a credit to Sheffield United who, as will be discussed, managed both Neves and Moutinho very well, however, had Wolves been able to find Jiménez in these positions at a more regular rate, they could have created more chances with the potential of scoring more goals.
Stopping Neves and Moutinho
To conclude, in a tightly contested game between two excellent teams, Sheffield United were able to edge out thanks to a last minute thanks to a set-piece. This highlights how tight the game was with both teams being extremely solid in defensive situations. Moving forward, Wolves will need to pick up form if they are to have a hope of Champions League football. They sit six points off Manchester United. Sheffield United, on the other hand, will be delighted with the three points and will be hoping that they continue their revival of good form. They take on Chelsea next in a game which could be crucial in deciding the outcome for European places. Wolves take on Everton in what will be another tough game for Wolves, as they look to get back into form.