Jump directly to the content

News Corp is a network of leading companies in the worlds of diversified media, news, education, and information services.

DREAM TEAM

Your Sun

A News UK Company
TOP
OVERLOAD

How do Sheffield United’s ‘unique’ overlapping centre-backs actually work?

“I saw things that I wanted to develop and I couldn’t do it.”

That’s Marcelo Bielsa admitting his frustration after being well and truly stumped tactically, which is saying something.

But Bielsa wasn’t waxing lyrical about Pep Guardiola or Arrigo Sacchi.


SIGN UP HERE – PLAY DREAM TEAM WEEKENDER


Sheffield born and bred

Reuters
14
Sheffield born and bred

No, these remarks came in the build up to Leeds’ crunch Championship clash with Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United back in March.

“I would say the Sheffield United head coach is someone with new ideas and I have seen very few people with these ideas,” Bielsa added.

Chris Wilder, Yorkshire born and bred, the revolutionary.

And one of his most mind-blowing inventions has been the introduction of overlapping centre-backs.

Wilder the revolutionary

Reuters
14
Wilder the revolutionary

This won’t be news to most Blades fans who are well versed in the area, but welcome to a very brief idiot’s guide to Wilder’s brainchild.

Wilder took charge back in 2016 when United were still a League One club, but his now tried and tested 3-4-1-2 formation was initially nowhere to be seen.

“If memory serves me right we started playing that formation at Gillingham away about six games into Wilder’s first season,” Jay Socik, aka Blades Analytic, tells me.

“We’d actually only won one of our first five games and the formations being used just weren’t working.”

That Gillingham clash proved a watershed moment. Something clicked that day.

Their first promotion in 2016/17

-
14
Their first promotion in 2016/17

As that season developed outside centre-backs Jack O’Connell and Ethan Ebanks-Landell increasingly popped up in advanced positions.

Wilder saw his new formation as a mechanism to overload the attacking third, a tonic to teams that sat deep against them. Simply put, they were getting more players in dangerous areas.

Three seasons on and the same logic applies.

O’Connell and Chris Basham are probably the most involved central defenders in the top flight.

O’Connell is in the same mould as Jan Vertonghen

AFP or licensors
14
O’Connell is in the same mould as Jan Vertonghen

Basham is a jack-of-all-trades who previously played Premier League football with Blackpool, while O’Connell, like many of the Blades squad, came up the divisions.

“An iconic sight from that [League One] season was O’Connell’s marauding runs into the box, linking up with the midfield and strike force,” says Ben Humphries, aka Travelling Blade.

“He became a real threat going forward with a potent mix of size, strength and the link up play of any decent creative midfielder.”

Last season the duo managed six goals and seven assists between them. These aren’t your typical defenders, they’re proper footballers.

Basham scoring the winner at Leeds last season

PA:Press Association
14
Basham scoring the winner at Leeds last season

The system is all about accountability, with the entire team prepared to compensate for their marauding defenders.

Take United’s brilliant 2-2 draw at Chelsea last Saturday as an example.

In the latter stages of the first half, right centre-back Basham is well advanced of George Baldock at right wing-back.

Basham (bottom right) is well ahead of Baldock

14
Basham (bottom right) is well ahead of Baldock

Basham is found by a ball over the top

14
Basham is found by a ball over the top

Baldock moves inside to plug the gap vacated by Basham, who continues his run forward anticipating a ball over the top.

In one fluid move Chelsea are suddenly exposed.

Basham is released down the right and sends a tempting ball across the Chelsea box, which unfortunately Callum Robinson can’t convert at the back post.

He produced a tantalising cross

14
He produced a tantalising cross

Which Robinson nearly converts

14
Which Robinson nearly converts

So is there one player that glues it all together?

“It’s really hard to pick one. We’ve lost so many players over the last 12 months and continued to play our game,” Jay adds.

“But Oliver Norwood is extremely key.

“His passing length and distribution is insanely good so that when our defenders do drift forward they get picked out.”

If right-footed players could have culture

Reuters
14
If right-footed players could have culture

Ben agrees, although similarly reiterates the emphasis on the collective.

“That’s like asking which wheel on a car is the most important,” he says.

“In the past it would have been Paul Coutts, but since he’s moved on I would say Norwood.

“His long-range passes grant our wing-backs and overlapping centre-backs the creative freedom to cause issues for the opposition defence.

“With his passing we’re able to turn possession in deep midfield to a dangerous attack in a matter of seconds.”

Norwood’s is an intruiging subplot after years of being the bridesmaid.

The key man

Getty - Contributor
14
The key man

Promoted with Brighton and Fulham in successive seasons, he twice dropped straight back down a division in the search of more game time.

So his United career is a case of third time lucky, finally grasping the opportunity to shine at the highest level.

Norwood has played every minute of the Blades’ Premier League campaign so far and only lively left wing-back Enda Stevens (7.16) has a higher average rating on WhoScored.

While expected to dictate the tempo, he and John Lundstram are equally as disciplined in filling in for their buccaneering team-mates.

Lundstram celebrates his winner against Crystal Palace

Getty - Contributor
14
Lundstram celebrates his winner against Crystal Palace

They all buy into the system, they all sacrifice themselves for the cause.

Wilder accepts his side are vulnerable to the counter, but last season they boasted the joint best defensive record in the Championship.

They suffocate their opposition in the final third and clearly have the personnel in Norwood and Lundstram to plug the gaps too.

Wilder and co. are letting their feet do the talking after being patronised, disrespected and pigeonholed all summer by certain pundits.

Basham gallivanting forward

Getty - Contributor
14
Basham gallivanting forward

“They play a unique style that I really enjoy watching,” Lee Johnson, Bristol City manager, said last year.

“You’ve got a lot of sexy names and foreign flair but he’s [Wilder] winning this type of award, which I think is great.”

The reality is Wilder’s side might just be too sophisticated for certain ‘experts’ to get their heads around.

Wilder and Sharp are local heroes

Getty Images - Getty
14
Wilder and Sharp are local heroes

The Blades are far from the ‘Brexit brigade’ many anticipated, far more nuanced for many to comprehend.

Wilder has masterminded a revolution in Sheffield, transforming a side who were 12th favourites for Championship promotion last season into genuine Premier League placeholders.

His centre-backs may get found out over the course of the season, but so far they’ve given all their opponents something unprecedented to think about.

Long may it continue.