In a season that has seen half of the “Big 6” struggle with managerial changes or extended dips in form, there’s been a land grab for the real estate that has opened up just below Liverpool and Manchester City on the table.
Leicester City and Wolves have both played excellently, but the biggest surprise of the season is Sheffield United. Promoted to the Premier League this season, they have been in the mix for a European spot in the table going into the COVID break instituted in mid-March.
Without a doubt, Chris Wilder has implemented a system that makes his team greater than the sum of its parts. In turn, it necessitates the perfect personnel to be available for squad selection as much as possible. It’s no wonder that Sheffield United have one of the most consistent starting elevens in the league - Wilder has a very clear understanding of who he can rely on to carry out Sheffield United’s game plan. Consequently, when a starting player is made unavailable due to injury or suspension, it has a severe negative impact on the team’s effectiveness.
Prior to the league restart, they had conceded 25 goals in 29 matches, only behind Liverpool and Leicester with their goals/90 min. ratio. However, during their second game back against a resurgent Manchester United, Wilder was missing defenders John Egan (28 appearances) due to a red card and Jack O’Connell (29 appearances) due to an injury. Manchester United ran rampant securing a 3 nill win. In the most recent FA Cup tie, Arsenal came away winners with a 2-1 scoreline, the winning goal scored by Ceballos due to poor defending on Sheffield’s part.
Needless to say, Sheffield United’s defense has started to show cracks during the restart of the league. Given that Chris Wilder freely admits his team has excelled this season due to the foundation their defensive record has given them, this is a massive concern for the Blades. For Tottenham, it presents a phenomenal opportunity to continue climbing up the table.
How Sheffield United Play - In Possession
A lot has been said about Sheffield United’s defensive excellence, but what about their attacking play? Simply put, it cannot be compared to their performances in the defensive third. Their top goal scorers, John Fleck and Lys Mousset, have scored only 5 goals each. They’ve only scored 30 goals in the league so far - 6 less than 19th placed Aston Villa.
This is not due to not being able to create chances. With 30 goals scored and an xG of 41.19 (decidedly mid table, Spurs have an xG of 44.23 with 50 goals scored), they have one of the largest disparates between xG and goals scored. Clearly their team is in dire need of a consistent goalscorer, but they do know how to create goalscoring opportunities.
Just about 80% of their build up play is accomplished through the flanks.
It logically follows, then, that crosses from the wings are an important tool for the Blades’ attack. They have the third most amount of crosses in the league with a 33.7% accuracy rate (also one of the highest in the league). Additionally, crosses are a necessity to quickly change the play to the opposite flank if attacking opportunities are limited in the ball near side. Interestingly, two of Sheffield United’s players are amongst the top 5 in crossing accuracy in the league.
This is an extremely interesting stat as Chris Basham is a center back. He gets himself in great crossing positions, however, due to United’s overlapping centerback system. (Here’s a Tifo video that briefly explains this tactic.)
By involving their ball near centerback, the Blades are able to create numerical superiority on the flanks. This allows them to create a passing pattern that makes it easier to find a player with time and space to send in an accurate cross or take a long distance shot.
As the ball near centerback joins the attack, it necessitates a midfielder, typically Norwood, to sit a further back to act as insurance against a counter attack. Crucially, this midfielder is also tasked with acting as a pivot to change the direction of attack.
During their build up, Sheffield United are a very patient side. They are happy to knock the ball between the flanks in order to find the numerical superiority for the right approach towards goal.
If midfielders gravitate towards the build up play on the wing, an attacker (usually McGoldrick) drops deep to make themselves available in the middle of the pitch to recycle possession.
Within this back and forth wing-play lies the method to disintegrate Sheffield United’s attack - if overloads are created on the wings Sheffield players won’t think twice about sending in a cross or taking a long distance shot.
However, if a midfielder moves across to crowd out Sheffield United player, and the defending team’s ball far forward/midfielder shifts quickly/aggressively enough to block or interrupt the switch, their attack can be nullified. This would necessitate wingers that track back, and a mobile midfield that can shift quickly.
How Sheffield United Play - Out of Possession
As mentioned previously, Sheffield United are much more frail defensively compared to four months ago. In their last three games since the restart, they’ve been outscored 8-1 (although Egan was sent off early in the second half against Newcastle, their defensive line is also making more errors since the restart.)
Furthermore, prior to the COVID break, they were a side that was known for its compactness. Again, since the restart, their defensive setup has looked much shakier, and their horizontal compactness has suffered.
Exacerbating their lack of horizontal compactness is their struggle to maintain good vertical distance between their players as well. As mentioned above, Saka is in a great position to pick up the ball - bypassing Norwood and Berge, while forcing the backline to either press or retreat.
Both Arsenal and Manchester United did well to find players between the lines (exploiting the vertical space) and dragging Sheffield defenders out of position for attackers to run in behind.
Regardless of Manchester United’s attack finally clicking, both Arsenal and the Red Devils found success through their high tempo of play. Sheffield United’s defensive structure has been crumbling, as explored above, but to fully exploit this Tottenham will need to move the ball much quicker than what we saw against West Ham.
How Spurs Need to Approach The Game
Although Tottenham’s attack still seems flat since the restart, our defensive process has improved significantly. Both Dier and Sanchez have played a large role in keeping our defense tight, and I expect them to start with Aurier and Davies on the flanks.
As noted above, Sheffield United’s attacking setup necessitates wingers that track back and mobile midfielders, one or two of which can pick a pass for a counter or while in possession to exploit Sheffield’s horizontal/vertical gaps. Lamela (although Lucas might be a good shout) and Son, with a midfield of Giovani Lo Celso, Moussa Sissoko, and Dele represent the best chance to shut down Sheffield’s wing play while Lo Celso and Dele have the technical ability for quick passing combinations or a measured pass that splits Sheffield’s defenders.
Kane dropping deeper might drag defenders out of position, creating space that Dele, Lamela, or Son can exploit. All players will need to put their poor finishing against West Ham behind them - Dean Henderson has been phenomenal for Sheffield United in goal, and could make Thursday a very frustrating day for Kane, Son, and Dele.
Regardless of the lineup, this is a perfect opportunity for both Mourinho and Spurs to prove that things are starting come together not only defensively, but offensively as well.