The Season Just Gone
Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United pipped Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United to the second automatic Championship promotion spot after a marathon slog, which secured Wilder the LMA Manager of the Year gong ahead of Manchester City’s treble-winning Pep Guardiola.
It was surprising enough that Wilder managed to get Sheffield United promoted in what was his side’s second season in the Championship after promotion from League One, but it was how he did it that most caught the eye, Wilder having pioneered a system which had the famously encyclopedic Bielsa impressed, with the Argentine on record as saying he’d never seen any team attack the way Wilder’s does, with his centre-backs flying down the flanks at will and crossing into the box like wingers.
Local lad, captain and talisman Billy Sharp scored 23 goals and relished every second of playing such a crucial role in bringing his boyhood club to the Premier League, while Oliver Norwood and John Fleck, once highly fancied youngsters at bigger clubs, delivered seasons of considerable class in midfield. The undoubted hero, however, was Wilder — not since Eddie Howe took Bournemouth up in 2015 had a manager from outside the top flight been named Manager of the Year by his peers.
The Transfer Window
Much like Norwich City, Sheffield United avoided the received wisdom that their callow squad needed Premier League experience, and invested in players previously untouched by annual relegation dogfights.
Oli McBurnie became the club record signing, joining for £20m from Swansea City, while Lys Mousset came in for £10m after failing to oust Callum Wilson and Joshua King at Bournemouth. Phil Jagielka was afforded a sentimental return home for one last hurrah, and Ravel Morrison was given one final role of the dice in the game. Goalkeeper Dean Henderson remains on loan from Man Utd and midfielder Muhamed Bešić is now on loan from Everton.
Such a prudent summer spend should see Sheffield United’s financial future secured, regardless of whether they go straight back down to the second tier.
The Season Ahead
The Blades have started well enough and sit on four points after a draw away to Bournemouth, a home win against Crystal Palace and a narrow loss to Leicester. On the balance of play in each game they could have ended up with three wins from three, but a clinical edge has been lacking at both ends and Wilder made no secret of his displeasure after last week’s defeat.
Their system will surely ensure that they manufacture enough chances to win games - their target should be to make sure they convert enough of them to give themselves a fighting chance. The defence has to tighten up too, being aware that if they don’t there will be plenty of games like last week’s. Established Premier League opposition will bury every chance they get, given the opportunity.
Wilder’s favoured and now-famous system is a kind of 3-4-1-2. Not one for overcomplicating matters, his rationale is simple: their formation allows them to have numerical advantages in every zone of the pitch, as long as players move and rotate their positions correctly.
The most famous aspect of their attack is the overlapping centre-back component. Typically, they will build their attacks down the flanks and work the ball out to the wing-back. The strikers and number ten pack the box, overloading the opposition centre-backs, while the Blades’ right-centre-back or the left-centre-back overlaps outside his wing-back, overloading the opposition full-back. A crossing or cutback opportunity is created and executed, leaving one of the many bodies in the box with a quality shooting chance.
This highly aggressive positional strategy commits huge numbers into attack and, by Wilder’s own admission, leaves the Blades “wide open” to possible counters. It could be that in the Premier League they are punished far more regularly than in the Championship, but so far they haven’t looked even remotely like being embarrassed or outclassed.
First and foremost they have their highly unorthodox and destabilising tactics, which if Marcelo Bielsa hadn’t seen or thought of before, no-one had seen before. Frank Lampard, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham will have first-hand experience of managing and playing against Sheffield United last year, but everyone else could be forgiven for thinking “what the hell are they doing?” after a few minutes on Saturday.
They’ve also managed to control their opposition too, thus far only allowing 9.7 shots per game on their goal, the Premier League’s third lowest figure. This is not going to be an easy nut to crack.
As good as they’ve been at limiting their opposition, they’ve found it hard to create good chances, most of their attacks failing to find their forwards or provide them with good enough chances to score. Billy Sharp’s late equaliser at Bournemouth was bundled in from close range after a scramble, while Oli McBurnie’s header last week was the first example of their Plan A actually working this season.
So far, they’ve managed the fourth lowest figure for shots per game and the second lowest for shots on target. They’re creating stalemates, which isn’t a good way to stay up in the dog-eat-dog world that is the Premier League.
Chris Wilder rotated heavily in his side’s midweek League Cup win over Blackburn Rovers and we should expect the first XI to return this weekend.
N’Golo Kanté should return for Chelsea, while Mason Mount will be assessed after getting a knock late last week. Antonio Rüdiger is also in line return after a lengthy absence, but he could be brought back slowly but surely, meaning another game for Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma at the back.
Chelsea will surely have too much quality for Sheffield United. 3-0.