As we race away from the mid-point in this year’s Premier League calendar, the shape of the league table is unlike anyone could have expected. A huge gap at the top, traditionally big teams off the pace and intruders in the top four are all shocks. But these all pale in comparison to the position of just one team – Sheffield United, who sit solidly in eighth place.
Last year, newly-promoted Wolves’ seventh-place finish was a lauded one, but the West Midlands team had achieved it by spending big money on talented players and an acclaimed coach. The Blades have spent no such money in their quest from Premier League glory. There have been no big signings or loans, nor any prolific managerial appointments. United have gotten here off the back of a philosophy of hard work, defensive solidity, rigid organisation, and a unique system implemented by the man at the heart of it all – Chris Wilder.
When Wilder first joined the club he’d supported as a boy and then played for in his career, the Blades were way down in League One. But for Yorkshire-born Wilder, this job in itself was the highest he’d ever taken. His managerial origins lay with Alfreton town, who played in the North Counties East Premier League, before moving up and playing Conference football with Halifax town. Spells with Oxford and Northampton saw him in and around League Two as recently as 2015, but his appointment as Blades manager a year later saw him take a big step up. Who might have guessed that in only three years he’d have led them to the Premier League – and make them look at home there?
Wilder’s roots in the lower leagues are more than just an impressive story of his rise but they provided the grounding for a system and philosophy that works as well in the top flights as it did in the third. With quality hard to come by, and quickly snapped up if it does emerge, in leagues below the Championship, footballing sides are often reliant on the ability and system of their managers to make headway and achieve results.
While this can be unreliable; talented managers who have tight and productive systems often find themselves climbing easily through the football tiers. Eddie Howe, for instance, brought Bournemouth up from League Two over the course of his two spells there.
Wilder is a similar success story, with his extended time in the tough conditions of League Two and the Conference the perfect place for him to temper and adapt his system and style of management. Imperatively, it has taught him to demand effort from his players more than quality or flashy displays of skill. It is no coincidence that Chris Wilder’s post-match interviews are often accompanied by an evaluation of how much his team put into the game – and when his side lost to Liverpool at Anfield he was full of nothing but praise for both sides’ effort.
On Five-Live radio recently, there was a pundit calling for Wilder to add ‘a bit of defining quality’ to his squad’s attacking roster – but this is advice the Sheffield United manager would unlikely follow. It is, instead, something he would go against. The Blades’ squad is not built on big names or big ‘quality’. Don’t get me wrong some of their players are absolutely fantastic footballers, and we’ll come to this, but Wilder does not want to sign players for their quality alone; effort and work rate are the attributes Wilder looks closest at.
Building a team for the system
When Wilder joined the Blades in 2016, he inherited a squad composed totally of British or Irish players – and he has largely stuck to this mantra with his recruitment. But this has not stopped him from building a team to suit his style, in fact, it has hardly hindered it.
Of the original squad from the 16-17 season, there are only four players who remain in this year’s Premier League squad and those who have stayed are there for a reason. Simon Moore is a reliable back-up goalkeeper, Billy Sharp is a long-time Blades player and leader in the dressing room, while defender Chris Basham (a midfielder back then) and John Fleck have both become crucial elements in Wilder’s team.
Before talking about his recruitment, the style itself needs to be looked at – and, yes, that does mean talking about ‘overlapping centre-backs’. Sheffield United play what looks, on the face of it, to be a fairly traditional 5-3-2. Three solid centre-backs are flanked by two wingbacks who provide the width of the side and can push up into the midfield in attacks. The midfield three are workhorses, carrying the ball forward, building the attack, or biting to win it back if they’re not in possession; while the front two work together to finish moves in the box or execute counter-attacks. All this is fairly standard – but Wilder has his own tweak to the system.
One of two of the wider centre-backs are encouraged, when the Blades are attacking, to push up into the wide spaces. The other two centre-backs drop into a more usual two centre back pairing. This gives the Blades what is commonly known as a ‘wide overload’, having more players than your opponent in wide spaces and using the extra man to play through them.
Teams such as Manchester City and Liverpool achieve this with their 4-3-3 formations – the fullbacks and wingers combine with the wider central midfielders, but Sheffield United’s way of doing it is totally unique and unseen in the top flight; giving them the ability to play expansive football while retaining defensive solidity.
But this element of tactical genius could not be achieved without players that have the aptitude to fulfill the roles. George Baldock and Enda Stevens are the hard-working wing-backs, while Chris Basham and John O’Connell the wide centre-backs with the pace and strength to provide the extra width when needed.
They sit either side of the solid John Egan, whose defensive ability and ball-playing skills anchor an excellent defensive unit. This excellence is underlined by the Blades’ goals against record: a meagre 23 goals conceded from 24 games played (less than one goal a game for those as bad at maths as me). Only one team have conceded less and that’s the league leaders Liverpool (15). In this company, it is no surprise the Blades are as high in the table as they are.
This stat will surely be the one Wilder is the proudest of – it shows that he is getting exactly what he wants from the squad he has built. It is here his effort-maximised philosophy combines with a system that has been years in the making. Its success, and his, has bred yet more success, and with the Blades finding themselves in eighth this season, who is to say that Wilder won’t find himself playing European football next year?