The secrets that underpin Sheffield United's success

Luke Martin
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Chris Wilder has taken the Premier League by storm with a Sheffield United side tipped for the drop at the start of the season. The Blades were riding high before the league’s postponement and will be hoping to hit the heights again when back in action. With the Yorkshire side currently sitting 7th in the Premier League, their rise from obscurity has led them to the prospect of European football.

Wilder was appointed Sheffield United manager in 2016 after the club sacked Nigel Adkins following their worst league position since 1983, finishing 11th in League One. Since then they have gone from strength to strength with two promotions in three seasons returning the Blades to top division football, leapfrogging city rivals Sheffield Wednesday in the process.

So what are the secrets behind Sheffield United’s success?

Tactical system

Their overachieving reflects on the poor performances of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, but Wilder’s team has a clear sense of identity and character, in a system honed since League One. Wilder deserves a lot of plaudits for his tactical approach and how quickly the Blades have adapted to life in the top flight. 

One key aspect of their success is the dedication to maintaining their shape. Wilder’s 3-5-2 set up is an innovative system that has rarely been seen in the Premier League. The three man midfield both adds protection to the backline and creates a solid base to move forward from. The tactical system is one the Blades have followed since Wilder’s appointment in 2016, however minor tweaks continually take them to the next level. 

The birth of the overlapping centre back role allowed a system where Sheffield could overload teams that sat in a deep block structure, whilst maintaining a back three. This unorthodox brand of football has shocked many and such a unique system makes it difficult for teams to prepare against it. The overlapping centre half provides an extra outlet moving forwards and the disruption of a traditional system toys with opposition defences. Wide centre backs Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell’s ability to confidently dart up the pitch when called upon provides an extra body in the attack, adding a new dynamic going forwards.

Jack O'Connell defending Arsenal's Nicholas Pepe in a cagey affair that ended 1-0 to the Blades at Bramall Lane.

Wilder’s team selection is sometimes questioned such as his persistence with David McGoldrick up front. However, McGoldrick embodies the collective defensive effort of the team. Despite having failed to score so far in the Premier League this season, he has made the most tackles (36) of any forward. Sheffield’s attacking threat is aided by the presence of an extra body in the form of the overlapping centre half, but they are also a clever team in creating opportunities. 73% of their efforts this season have come inside the box, showing their ability to create high percentage looks. Enda Stevens has gone as far to say that he has “never seen someone so hungry to score goals” about Billy Sharp. The dedication of this Blades team stretches across the pitch and their persistence in the collective defensive effort from the front is a key contributing factor to their success.

Dean Henderson

Wilder brought in 10 players for £43 million over the summer, but perhaps the most intelligent business was bringing Dean Henderson back on loan from Manchester United.

The Yorkshire side have conceded the second least goals (25) in the Premier League, only behind league leaders Liverpool (21) and Henderson has propelled himself into Euro 2021 contention with his impressive performances. 

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In the 2018/19 Championship season the Blades had the joint best defensive record in the league, conceding 41 goals in 46 games. Henderson kept 21 clean sheets, but his ascension to the number one spot at Old Trafford halted following David de Gea’s new contract. However, with De Gea’s own form in recession Henderson has created a headache for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Henderson is deservedly attracting attention from a variety of clubs, but at Sheffield United under Chris Wilder, the virtues of his present situation are self-evident. A return to Manchester United could see his gametime significantly reduced, inhibiting his progression and his claims for a place in Southgate’s England squad. 

Henderson has certainly taken the Premier League in his stride and if this form is to continue, following the imposed hiatus, then he is sure to develop into one of the best in the Premier League.

Canny recruitment

One of the most remarkable elements of this Sheffield side is the percentage of the squad that have been involved since their time in League One. Centre back trio, Chris Basham, Jack O’Connell and John Egan have made a combined 483 appearances for the Blades. Despite having signed 10 players in the summer, Wilder continues to put his faith in those who have flourished in their unique system.

In contrast, Aston Villa brought in 12 players for £134 million in the summer window and Dean Smith has used 28 players across the season, with the Villans sitting 19th in the Premier League. This was a similar story at Tottenham after the sale of Gareth Bale. Spurs opted for quantity over quality as they made seven signings to bolster the squad and try and negate the loss of one of the world's best players. Sheffield United’s more conservative approach emphasises the success of their system. Rather than feeling the need to splash the cash on high profile players, their canny recruitment feeds into their high-flying tactical system.

Wilder has adopted a strategy of signing low-maintenance squad players to provide depth in order to sustainably compete across the season. A successful system and the ability to make minor improvements for greater gain, allows for consistency in a Sheffield side that will hope to continue their push for Europe once the season resumes.