A fixture that looks straightforward on paper, but it is well known that no team in Premier League can be taken lightly. In the game between Manchester City and Sheffield United, we knew that one team was going to dominate the other in possession and will create more chances.
Manchester City immediately settled into a fluent passing rhythm during build-up play and moved the ball well in the forward positions, using a good number of cross-field passes into the wide areas. It is in this period that Manchester City scored their first and the only goal of the game. A goal worthy of being a winner.
Following the goal, Manchester City started to lose the ball more often than usual in the last 15 minutes of the first half. And this led to Sheffield United finishing the first half on a positive note in terms of possession, number of touches in the opposition’s penalty area, and crosses in the box.
Sheffield United carried this confidence into the second half and put in a better performance than the first half. They moved the ball on the floor instead of playing long balls to their strikers. Both sides created good chances, but neither side managed to score a goal in the second half. Rhian Brewster should have got his first goal for his new side when he only had Ederson to beat in the 1v1 situation.
Sheffield United started in a more triangle-like 5-3-2 formation. Brewster started for his new club with McBurnie in a two-man attack. Ampadu, on loan from Chelsea, started in the heart of the midfield along with Osborn and Berge.
Manchester City played Ferran Torres through the center as a lone striker with Sterling back to his preferred position on left. Bernardo Silva got the nod ahead of Phil Foden in the midfield alongside Kevin De Bruyne. This was only the second time Manchester City fielded the same back four in this Premier League season.
In this tactical analysis, we will examine the areas where Sheffield United and Manchester City adapted to the needs of the game. In this analysis, we will also highlight how Bernardo Silva’s versatility allowed Manchester City to adapt to the game.
Sheffield United – Defensive structure
Sheffield United played in a 5-3-2 formation offensively as well as defensively. The defensive tactics of Sheffield United were to stay close to each other, especially through the center. Sheffield United maintained a high defensive line, while the 3 midfielders worked very hard throughout the game to make up the numbers defensively.
Brewster and McBurnie lead the line as the front two for Sheffield United, but they were more focused to stop passes in the midfield, rather than pressing the Manchester City center-backs.
Sheffield United’s defensive structure allowed Manchester City to play the ball wide. The high defensive line and crowded midfield meant that Sterling and Mahrez received the ball far away from the goal. Always well marked, they rarely had a direct attempt on the goal. With the absence of a proper striker, Sheffield United’s players were smart to focus on Sterling and Mahrez, who were Manchester City’s main goal threat.
Sheffield United’s possession stats are not impressive, but whenever they had possession they did commit men forward except for their full-backs. Though this wasn’t a game of counter-attacks, Sheffield United looked prepared for all scenarios against a team like Manchester City. They pro-actively pressed the ball carrier, marked the striker, and formed a defensive line across the field closing all forward passing options. As seen in the picture above, Kevin De Bryune had to turn and retain the ball by passing backward.
When you have one of the best midfielders in your team, football looks simpler. Kevin De Bruyne played closer to Mahrez at the start of the game. He swapped positions with Bernardo Silva for the remainder of the first half after the goal. He moved from the inside-right channel to the inside-left channel closer to Sterling.
As part of the change in tactics for the second half, Kevin De Bruyne played closer to the Manchester City attacking players in between the lines, while Bernardo Silva played closer to the defenders helping them in the build-up play to move the ball forward.
Their game awareness is so high that they would often cover their teammates positionally both in attacking as well as defensive moments. Bernardo Silva covered both the full-backs positionally on multiple occasions especially when Manchester City had to pass back to re-build the game.
Bernardo Silva is the most versatile player in the Manchester City squad and the ex-Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola has used him in many positions throughout his career. In the second half, Silva was given the freedom to exploit spaces in the middle third of the field. He was always on a move, running into space behind Sheffield United players.
This switch in tactics was important because Sheffield United had covered most of the forward passing line to the Manchester City players. Bernardo Silva’s on-and-off the ball movement disrupted Sheffield United’s defensive organization and allowed other Manchester City players to be more effective in the second half.
Sheffield United – Tending Right
Sheffield United had more possession in the second half compared to the first half, and most of their crosses were from their right-side. From the average positions of the players, it is clear that Sheffield United is more advanced positionally on their right side as compared to their left, while the players also play closer to each other.
As high as 65% of Sheffield United attacks, and 12 out of 18 crosses came from the right-side of Sheffield United. The way these players combine patiently until an opportunity to cross is admirable. We can see in the picture here how Sheffield United created 3v3 situations on the right-side and maneuvered the ball to Berge for an opportunity to cross to 4 Sheffield United players in front of the goal.
Ferran Torres – Lone Striker
Ferran Torres is predominantly a player more effective from the wide areas, but he sacrificed his positional preference for the team when Pep Guardiola started him as a centre-forward in this game. Ferran Torres is no Aguero or Jesus, but he did really well to help the team’s cause in this game.
He did show strikers instincts when he forced 2 very good saves from the Ramsdale in the first half – a header in the first 10 minutes of the game and a near-post run flick on a cross from left.
But more than his goal-scoring ability, Manchester City wanted him to occupy the Sheffield United center-backs and push them deeper making space available for Kevin De Bruyne to operate in. He was very willing to make runs behind Sheffield United’s defensive line at every opportunity and he did that with good effect.
He had to spend a lonely time surrounded by Sheffield United’s defenders, but his hard work and willingness didn’t go unnoticed. No wonder his expected goal (xG) was the highest for any player on the pitch by far. He did deserve a goal.
The feature of this game was the patience with which Manchester City approached it. Their game management in the midfield was excellent, and they defended with assurance and calmness. Though Ederson only had one crucial save to make, Sheffield United came back well into the game being persistent with their efforts. Manchester City had the game under control for the most part of it while the difference in the quality of players showed in the final result.