Talking Tactics

Promoted clubs: How Heckingbottom has revived Sheff Utd

By Adrian Clarke 10 Aug 2023

Adrian Clarke says Blades are hard to break down and strong in both boxes as they return to the Premier League

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Adrian Clarke continues his series analysing the tactical elements of the three promoted clubs and how they will fare in the Premier League this season.

Club analysis: Sheffield United

Paul Heckingbottom’s side return to the Premier League as an efficient team who are extremely well-versed in their own tactical approach.

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Just as they did under previous manager Chris Wilder, the Blades operate in a 3-5-2 formation, with their wide central defenders encouraged to push on and join in with selected attacks.

Rarely deviating away from their first-choice system or style, they lined up with a back three in 45 of their 46 Championship matches last season, using a front two in 37 of those fixtures.

Aside from the occasional pragmatic switch to a 3-5-1-1, it is difficult to envisage Sheff Utd playing any other way under Heckingbottom this season.

Strong in both boxes

The key to Sheff Utd’s automatic promotion was their quality at each end of the pitch.

They are not a controlled, possession-based side. On average they had a 51.2 per cent share of the ball last season, and 13 Championship teams strung together more sequences of 10 or more passes than them.

However, they were hugely impressive inside both penalty areas.

Getting the ball forward quickly, they scored 73 times, the third-highest total in the division, with the standout stars being Iliman Ndiaye (14 goals, 10 assists) and Oli McBurnie (13 goals, two assists).

See: Two key Sheff Utd players to look out for

At the other end of the pitch they had the joint second-best defensive record, conceding only 39 goals.

Sheff Utd kept high levels of discipline and game management, only letting in more than one goal in eight of their 46 matches.

As they step up a level their resilience will be tested much more, but they are a well- organised team.

Set-piece prowess

Sheff Utd’s strength in both boxes was typified by their success from set-plays.

They are always a threat from corners, wide free-kicks and long throws, scoring 22 times from dead-ball situations.

Blessed with plenty of height, they also did a fine job of defending set-pieces.

Coventry City were the only second-tier team to leak fewer goals than Sheff Utd’s eight over the course of the campaign.

Championship set-piece goals 22/23
Goals scored Goals conceded
Millwall 24 Coventry 6
Sheff Utd 22 Sheff Utd 8
West Brom 18 Birmingham 9
Luton 16 Norwich 9
Birmingham 16 - -
High press

The Blades defend from the front with conviction, asking their front two to press in advanced areas, with the midfield and defensive players squeezing up in unison behind them.

Premier League opponents are sure to push them back into a deeper block more frequently this season, but Heckingbottom will ask his players to close down inside the central and attacking thirds where possible.

They were superb at disrupting their opponents’ passing last campaign, which helped them keep their tally of goals conceded from open play down to a very respectable 28.

At the other end, no one scored more goals from high turnovers, and they produced around eight of those situations per match.

Hardworking across the midfield, Sheff Utd make a lot of tackles and their aggressive style makes them awkward to play against.

Sheff Utd defensive work 22/23
  Total Rank
Passes per defensive action 11.1 3rd
High turnovers 366 2nd
Goals from high turnovers 14 =1st
Tackles per 90 minutes 17.9 =3rd
Yellow cards 102 2nd

On their return to the Premier League, we are unlikely to see Sheff Utd controlling matches with sustained periods of possession.

However, they could be hard to break down, and they will offer a genuine threat from quick transitions and set-pieces.

Also in this series

Part 1: How Kompany has transformed Burnley
Part 2: Burnley's key men offer poise and pace
Part 4: Two key Sheff Utd players to look out for
Part 5: Why Luton's unique approach can ruffle feathers
Part 6: Luton trio can step up in the Premier League

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