Since Antonio Conte’s successful passage through Chelsea using a back-three, more have been the British teams that had shifted to this formation. Chris Wilder has promoted Sheffield United from the English Football League to the Premier League playing with a back-three, maintaining their starting players: Chris Basham as a right-back, John Egan as centre-back and Jack O’Connell as a left-back.
In this scout report, we are going to do a deep tactical analysis on the back-three of the Blades in the Premier League, and how the man-marking tactics used worked perfectly-becoming the second-best defense just conceding 26 goals in the whole season only being outperformed by Liverpool. We are also going to do an analysis of their attacking role, with the wide centre-backs reaching the final third.
The Blades under Wilder tactics have been playing with a back-three since last year’s promotion to the Premier League. The trio at the back has been maintained throughout the season and only Egan had missed one game due to injuries. Sheffield United with Leicester City and Liverpool are the only teams that have allowed less than 1 goal per match this season, the Blades allowing an xG of 36,88 outperforming Leicester City who conceded an xG of 37.43. The compactness and synchronization maintained by this back-three are what allows this team to be so secure at the back. To maintain an effective compact defense the individual back-three will be as far as possible from the goal to have access to the attackers whilst maintaining the connections between them. Though the defending compactness will be relative to the positioning of the rivals and the number of players used by the opposition.
This back three defend in a man-marking style, in which each individual will be strictly following one of the attackers positioned in the final third. The number of players used to attack by the opponents will determine if there will be an extra player or all will be man-marking. In the case of playing against a team with three attackers, each of the back-three will be following one of them. In the next picture, we can see in the game against the Reds the back-three shifted into the right-flank, each being in charge of marking one of their forwards. We can see that the compactness is not lost, as the relative distance between the three is maintained having access to their marks at the same time.
What makes this back three relentless in the defensive third is their aggressive style to follow their marks. When the ball is passed to their marks, they would instantly make contact with the receiver not allowing them to receive comfortably and forcing them to play backward. This is supported by the stats that showed that all of the back-three do not engage in defensive duels, as their main concern is to force the opposition to play backward. The three of them perform between the range of five and six defensive duels per game, far away from, for example, Tottenham’s Juan Foyth’s tally of 14 defensive duels per game. In the next picture, we can see Basham following Roberto Firmino to the right-flank not allowing him to turn and forcing the Reds to recycle the ball.
There are determined situations that this strict man-marking shifts into a flexible man-marking when the ball is progressed through the flanks. In these scenarios, the wide centre-back in the strong side will handle his mark to Egan and stay free of mark giving support to the wing-back. In the next picture, we can see the Citizens progressing the ball through the right flank, O’Connell handles his mark to Egan to give support in the strong side and protect the half-space lane.
What makes this back-three different to others is their participation in the attacking third, Basham and O’Connell will not only be involved in following their mark through the field albeit they become important in the final third arriving into this zone by surprise becoming dangerous as most of the times won’t be followed by the opposing wingers. In the next picture, we can see Basham overlapping George Baldock, in this case forcing Norwich City centre-back to support the flank and increases the chance of scoring in a cross.
These situations create extra options in the flanks outnumbering the defense in the wide areas. Most of the time the passiveness of the wingers in charge of following the wide-backs will give a qualitative or numerical superiority to this offensive tool used by the Blades. In the next picture, we can see O’Connell underlapping Stevens in the left flank, having a numerical superiority as Jordan Ayew is not prepared to follow him creating a 3v2 in the left flank of the final third.
Wilder’s direct style is not one that favors the build-up from the back, certain tactic moves allow the back-three to play wide and look for deep passes into the final third. Oliver Norwood will fall deep next to Egan, allowing both wide-back to position wide in the pitch. When the ball is received by Basham or O’Connell, Billy Sharp will run in behind the defensive line either in the weak or strong-side. Basham and O’Connell are second and third in centre-backs deep completed crosses per match respectively. In the next picture, we can see O’Connell after receiving the ball in the flank he opened his body to look for a deep pass into the central area to connect Sharp behind the Citizen defensive line.
While this aggressive strict man-marking style used by the Blades back-three has been effective in preventing opponents to play comfortably, it embodies some weakness that we will analyze next. One obvious weakness generated by this style of defending is the gaps and spaces created by following strictly their marks. This is magnified when playing against the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool that will play with attacking players with a lot of movements and rotations. In the next picture, we can see that Basham was taken out of the central area due to his commitment to following his mark. We can see that the gap created in the central area is massive, even more for a player of the caliber of Sergio Aguero. Basham wasn’t able to force the Citizens to play the ball backward, instead, the ball was played to the flank, and the Argentinian ended up scoring through a cross.
Another weakness under this style arises when midfield opponents arrive at the final third without having a strict mark. In this case, flexible man-marking should be applied to mark the player entering the final zone and handle the strict-mark to their partner. In the next picture, we can see a miss-communication between Basham and Egan in which instead of being one-v-one the left centre-back follows his mark without noticing the run in behind even though Egan was free to hold his mark, conceding a goal in the second post.
Through this scout report, we have supported why the Blades defensive style has been so effective, becoming the second-best defense in the league. A victory in the missing game against Aston Villa would position themselves fifth in the league above Manchester United, qualifying to the European competitions.
We have seen that this back-three is not only capable of stopping the rivals but also plays an important role in creating scoring chances in the opposite goal. Albeit, we have not seen any assist from either wide-back this season, what was more common in the previous season in the English Football League. If their tactical defensive weaknesses are diminished and they manage to add some assists in the attacking phase this team can dream of achieving the fourth place.