It looked like the first Premier League derby in 26 years between both the Yorkshire sides was heading out for a draw at Bramall Lane on Sunday evening. But with two minutes remaining, Patrick Bamford slotted in a fine header from a Jack Harrison cross to make it 1-0. It was Bamford’s third goal of the season which ensured Leeds United move to sixth in the league table.
The match revolved around the fantastic goalkeeping display at both the ends. Illan Meslier excelled in goal as he pulled off one of the saves of the season by denying John Lundstram from close range and Leeds for their part could not find their way past Aaron Ramsdale as he did well to keep out everything thrown at him.
Leeds started the game at a ferociously high tempo, the players were interchanging positions with mystifying rapidity. Thus, Chris Wilder in the technical area looked tensed and agitated. Marcelo Bielsa’s men monopolised possession while shifting seamlessly between a back-three and a back-four while Sheffield United gradually began showing glimpses of their sharp one- and two-touch passing sequences.
In this tactical analysis, we will have a look at how Leeds snatched away three points from Sheffield in the last few minutes of the game. This analysis will also show you the tactics used by both teams in what proved to be a cagey affair.
Sheffield started in their usual 3-5-2 formation with summer signing Ramsdale starting between the sticks. The news that Jack O’Connell is out till next year worsened the Blades’ blunt beginning in the Premier League, as he needs a knee injury and John Egan was out for this match because of suspension. There were two fresh faces in the back three this time with Ethan Ampadu and Jack Robinson starting the match. Wilder started the match with Sander Berge once again at the base of the midfield with John Lundstram and Ben Osborn ahead of him. It was the same front two as last week, as Oliver Burke and David McGoldrick kept their place in the starting XI.
Marcelo Bielsa set up his team this week in a 3-4-1-2 formation, with only one change as Rodrigo Moreno made his way to the bench for Tyler Roberts. Meslier kept his place in the goal protected by a back three comprising Luke Ayling, Robin Koch, and Liam Cooper. Stuart Dallas partnered Kalvin Phillips, the anchor of the midfield. Bamford lead the line once again with Roberts and Mateusz Klich played behind them. Jack Harrison and Helder Costa kept their place in the first XI and were operating as wing-backs.
Marcelo Bielsa’s classic 3-3-1-3 setup
During the transition between defence and attack and in attacking phases, Leeds had set up in a 3-3-1-3 formation. In this formation Ayling, Koch, and Cooper formed the back three, while in the middle three Phillips and Dallas were constants and the third player would be anyone between Costa, Klich, and Roberts. The personnel within each line in the formation are interchangeable.
The middle three looked to utilise the space between Sheffield’s first and second line of defence. Their responsibility was to create multiple forward passing opportunities in between the lines. The front four comprised of a wide front three and an attacking midfielder responsible for stretching Sheffield’s defensive structure offensively and defensively. We will now have a look at how the players operate in this structure.
As you can see in the above picture, Sheffield are playing with two strikers who are leading this press. Bielsa looked to create a diamond 4 v 2 overload around Sheffield’s first line of defence. To be able to do this, Phillips creates an option by providing a passing option to either Ayling or Cooper that would break the lines.
Ayling plays a one-two pass with Phillips and drives forward with the ball. As we saw in the previous picture, Phillips provided a passing option to his central defenders, Sheffield had to move their second line of defence up which left a big gap in between their second and third line of defence. As you can see above, Ayling plays a pass directly onto the feet of Bamford to exploit the space created which was left unrecognised. Thus, Ampadu had to follow him, leaving space behind him for Roberts to run into.
The above picture is an example of a situation where Sheffield defended with a mid-block. Thus, their first and second line of defence became closer. Hence, Leeds created a 6 v 4 overload in the build-up as Roberts dropped to the halfway line, dragging Basham out of the defence line with him and Dallas became a left-back in the back four. As Basham goes back to join the defence line, it would leave Berge to choose which player to cover.
Leeds United’s rapid attack
Bielsa likes direct and attacking football, played at pace while retaining possession. He wants his team to use the width of the pitch with the players involved in attacking rotations to create numerical overloads. Between the wide and centre midfielders, there is a high degree of rotation and flexibility in attacking phases. We will now look at a few situations in which Leeds’ rapid attack caused trouble to Sheffield’s back line.
The above image shows a situation in which Leeds started the build-up from the back and it converted into a rapid incisive counterattack. Ayling plays a pass on to the feet of Bamford, who drops to the halfway line to link-up play. Bamford lays off the ball neatly to Klich.
Klich on his first touch curls a beautiful long pass inside between Basham and Baldock only to find Harrison on the left side of the box. Harrison decides not to shoot and cuts the ball back towards the penalty spot, where it gets cleared by Basham. Harrison chose the wrong option, but the build-up play was superb.
This is another situation where Podeva could have done better and could have given Leeds the breakthrough much earlier. Rodrigo clears the ball from a Sheffield corner, Bamford gets on the ball and drives forward. He sees that Podeva is ahead of him.
Bamford plays a simple pass to Poveda, who dances infield and ignores the reverse pass to Bamford. He drives forward and takes a shot from 20 yards which was flapped away by Ramsdale. Since coming on, Poveda looked lively and provided a real spark in the Leeds United attack but he was selfish at times, though.
In the 87th minute, Rodrigo turns smartly on the edge of the opposition box and plays a pass to Harrison on the left flank. Harrison curls a delicious cross towards the far post. Bamford gets on the end of it and is able to hang in the air long enough to head a fairly soft downward header into the net. Harrison’s cross-oriented approach finally paid off, as he could provide the cross which led to Bamford’s opener.
Sheffield’s build-up play against Leeds’ high press
Sheffield use the 3-5-2 formation when they start their build-up from the back. The three centre-backs stay in the first line to receive the pass from the goalkeeper and wing-backs push up further. They like to play largely possession-based football. They start by working the ball wide during build-up play. Meanwhile, Bielsa’s men like to be on the front foot, press high up the pitch and “get into the faces”. They like to regain possession high up the pitch rather than trying to press as an individual or a unit. We will look at how Sheffield used possession to build up when Leeds tried to press them high up the pitch.
Ramsdale played 32 passes in the whole match, out of which 23 of them were beyond his own third. This means that he only played 9 passes in his own third, out of which 4 were to Ethan Ampadu. As you can see in the above picture, Ramsdale plays a quick pass to Ampadu to start the build-up. Leeds’ front three positioned themselves a bit wide to block the passing lanes of Sheffield’s back three.
They did this to force a long pass and win the ball as soon as possible. We can also see Phillips and Dallas marking Sheffield’s double pivot of Berge and Osborn tightly. This denied Sheffield the opportunity to operate in the centre by eliminating the central options. Leeds like to press relentlessly to profit from turnovers in the middle third or final third.
At times, Lundstram dropped to give an additional option. Thus, Sheffield switched to an asymmetrical 3-3-4 system, forming two banks of three to help in the build-up. As you can see in the picture, this time Klich is marking Berge and Dallas (not in picture) has to follow Lundstram. Thus, Leeds pressed with only Bamford and Roberts on Sheffield’s back three. Hence, Ampadu had the freedom to move up with the ball as Bamford and Roberts used their excellent body shape and angle of approach to cut off his passing lanes. Bielsa always wants his team to press when the opposition team is still trying to position itself while transitioning.
Sheffield’s overloads on the flanks
Sheffield likes to create overloads in the wide channels and attack through that area. Their aim always is to get the ball into the final third behind the opposition’s back line or at least behind the full-back. In this match, they started 41% of their attacks from the left flank. We will look at the different patterns used by Sheffield on the left flank to get into the final third.
As you can see in the above picture, Robinson has the ball on his feet and meanwhile Stevens is making a run. He plays a pass to McGoldrick who plays a one-touch pass to Burke. Then, Burke plays a through ball with his left foot into the path of Stevens, who gets in behind the opposition defence by beating his marker. Sheffield likes to make use of overloads and positional rotations like these during the attacking phases.
In the above image, we can see Robinson plays a pass to Stevens while making a forward run. Stevens plays a one-touch pass to Osborn and makes a forward run. Osborn plays a through ball to Stevens on his first touch and again, Stevens beats his marker. As I have mentioned before, this team is always keen on attacking through the flanks and half-spaces. If they start an attack on one flank, they try to work around and get until the end of the flank to whip the ball into the box using normal and low crosses.
Sheffield defend deep – play on the counter
Sheffield United’s defensive structure was one of the key aspects of this team’s brilliant performances last season in which they conceded only 39 goals. We will look at how this team is so well-organised defensively and how they could hit Leeds where it hurt them the most.
As you can see in the above image, Leeds could bypass Sheffield’s high press. Immediately, Sheffield dropped back and defended in 5-2-3 formation with a low block. The front three formed the first line of defence. The two midfielders positioned themselves in front of the five defenders to offer them protection. As part of this setup, the wing-backs track back and become full-backs along with the three centre-backs. Thus, Baldock was up against Harrison and Stevens against Costa.
Quite a few times Sheffield were able to exploit Leeds’ imperfect pressing system. Their pressing system deploys their midfielders to mark a specific player. Phillips was marking McGoldrick while Ampadu cleared the ball from his own defensive third. In a physical tussle in the middle third, McGoldrick snatches the ball from Phillips and moves to the centre line.
There was no cover left in the centre as all midfielders were dragged by their targets or beaten like in the case of Phillips. As such, McGoldrick plays a through ball into the path of Burke who was 1 v 1 with Cooper. Sheffield looked to play on the counter mostly as they looked to exploit Leeds’ high line of defence by using Burke’s pace. Hence, they had in total 10 counterattacks in the game.
Bamford’s latest goal left Leeds with two league victories since returning to the Premier League after 16 years. Meanwhile, Sheffield are still waiting for their first point and first goal of this campaign. Despite an impressive display by Leeds, Bielsa’s side still has work on those underwhelming final balls. And once more, Meslier vindicated Bielsa’s faith and Robin Koch looked largely convinced at centre-back by making some important interceptions.
The Blades played some enterprising football. They should have scored a couple as they had 14 shots against the visitors but ended up with nothing. However, the Blades could find themselves in real trouble in a month or two as they face Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Chelsea in the next five fixtures.