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Sheffield United 3-0 Chelsea, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

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Breaking down Chelsea’s poor performance at Bramall Lane

First half

Sheffield United began the game aggressively, with balls into the corners, attacking the box with numbers from crosses, and pushing up into the final third to pressure Chelsea’s buildup after the first pass out. This would see them get behind Chelsea’s backline and create problems inside the box from not only the balls into the box (crosses and corners) but also through their ability to sustain the attacks and get the ball back into the box if not cleared by Chelsea.

United would press Chelsea to one side after the first pass out to the central defender, where their front two shifted to the sides to cover the central defender near or on the ball and Jorginho (leaving the far central defender free) while their midfielders pushed up and shifted to the sides, with the wide central midfielders going out to pressure Chelsea’s full back.

Passing the ball across the back full back to full back would normally see Sheffield’s pressure drop off, but that would then create the risk of losing the ball high up. Playing through the pressure was generally ineffective, since United were very tight, physical and aggressive to the offensive players. Willian’s the only player of Chelsea’s starting frontline who can keep the ball consistently enough under such pressure.

When reaching the final third, Chelsea really struggled for creation. Since they had kept the ball and waited for United to drop back, the speed of their attacks were slow, while moving up to face an organised defensive block. Other than the early cross behind United’s block from James, which found Pulisic breaking behind to head wide, Chelsea were not threatening United at all.

Sheffield United took the lead by continuing their success of playing into the corners, repeating the same attacking situations from the wings and sustaining a high position through their recovery of the ball around the box.

After scoring, Sheffield dropped back more often to set up from midfield and switched up their pressing. They would now have the wing-backs pushing up to pressure Chelsea’s full backs’ first touch, while the midfielders matched Chelsea’s before dropping back to defend their own box (where the midfielders would again shift to protect).

Going back to the problems Chelsea had using this system with Conte, pinning the wing-backs deep with wingers (back 5 vs front 3) can create a lot of problems getting out and allows for the opportunity to draw the midfielders out before finding spaces to attack the back five. Chelsea instead opted to use switches, with the wingers, wide midfielders and full backs all close to each other, which made it easy for United to shuffle and remain organised — not stretching them through distances. With the players all close to each other on the wings, the spaces were tight and the speed of the play continued to be slow.

Winning free kicks and playing into the corners would again prove profitable for United, providing them repeatable platforms to attack, where they would go on to score their second goal of the half and go into half time with a deserved lead.

Second half

Chelsea made two changes at half time, bringing on Antonio Rüdiger and Marco Alonso for Christensen and Mount, switching formation to a 3-4-3. This would change the matchups for the second half.

Against United’s front two, Chelsea’s wide central defenders could now come forward with the ball as the spare man, The wingers on the inside would drop for the ball (followed by United’s wide central defenders) and with the wing-backs pushed up, would change United’s overload to midfield and require the shuffling of the midfielders to pressure the free central defender on the ball. With United’s wing-backs pinned back by Chelsea’s, there were spaces for the front three dropping to collect the ball. Both Jorginho and Barkley found spaces behind United’s midfielders following the forward passes — receiving the lay-offs facing play — or could drop to collect the ball ahead of them.

Chelsea crossing from the right (James, Willian and Azpilicueta all capable of putting crosses in from different areas) as Abraham, Pulisic, Alonso and Barkley attacked the box was better than the team’s attempts in the first half.

Sheffield United v Chelsea FC - Premier League Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

The next change was Giroud for Pulisic, and to play with two strikers. Giroud’s movement and capacity to play as a target man made a big difference to Chelsea again. He gave them both a center to attack from (otherwise attacks were only up the wings) and the possibility to play directly to the front two much more often — creating a much more dynamic and broken situation for United to defend against.

After Chelsea’s most promising minutes of the game, they made another change which unbalanced them, with Hudson-Odoi replacing James and switching to a 4-2-4. United were quick to capitalise upon the new spaces left at the base of Chelsea’s shape from counters, as well as defensive errors, to extend their lead to three and finish the game—along with having additional chances to score more.

Sheffield United vs. Chelsea xG timing chart
Understat

Conclusion

Sheffield United’s game plan ensured that when they attacked with the ball the game was fast, dynamic and in the final third, while when Chelsea had the ball the speed of the game was slow, and Chelsea often risked losing the ball close to their own goal. After taking the lead, Sheffield dropped back to counter Chelsea’s slow possession with a deep defensive block, before extending their lead before halftime.

Chelsea’s change to a 3-4-3 improved their attacks during the second half. With Giroud on they had their best offensive period of the game, until the switch to a 4-2-4 left them unbalanced at the base of their shape and saw United countering into the spaces and extending their lead to earn themselves a deserved three points.