Steve Bruce went up against Sheffield United, the Championship side with whom he began his managerial career with back in 1998. A derby game, everybody was expecting a thriller. However, despite the roaring atmosphere from the Sheffield Wednesday fans, the game ended up pretty much reflecting the weather at Hillsborough. A mighty drab affair. Though, to be honest, if there ever was warning this would be a goalless draw it would’ve been the previous three ‘Steel City’ derbies. They all ended 0-0.
Both teams only managed one shot on target each with United having slightly more possession. In this tactical analysis, we will look into what drove this local derby game into a stalemate.
Sheffield Wednesday would adopt a safe 4-4-1-1 formation this game to repel Sheffield United’s well-known effectiveness for attacks. Liam Palmer was switched to left-back and Dominic Iorfa moved to right-back, replacing the injured Achraf Lazaar.
Sheffield United went with a slight change to their notorious 3-4-1-2 by moving the attacking midfielder Kieran Dowell into the midfield line making a 3-5-2. Unfortunately, Dowell, the Man of the Match in Sheffield United’s last game, didn’t play so well in this more central position.
Sheffield United corner-kick routines
With England’s massive success in the World Cup last summer from set-pieces, you could’ve expected more teams thinking up similar set-piece drills. Set-pieces offer different scenarios and if well drilled, can offer a slight advantage of play from a dead-ball situation. It was quite apparent early on that Sheffield United had different corner kick plays.
‘The Blades’ would line up vertically towards goal in a pack of five. Number ten Billy Sharp would screen the ‘keeper, reducing his movement. Wednesday spotted this with their full-back trying to tussle Sharp away from the goalkeeper’s proximity. The other four would split into two. Madine and Dowell would make a run near post whilst O’Connell and Egan made a run for the rear post. This splitting of a pack made defending corners extremely difficult for Sheffield Wednesday. Had it not been for disciplined marking and a touch of luck, the visitors could’ve easily scored.
In the second scenario and Sheffield United’s second corner of the game, they made an identical play. This time, Madine and Dowell moved for the rear post, splitting left and defenders Egan and O’Connell pushed to the near, splitting right. Billy sharp again, did his best to screen the goalkeeper and make movement difficult for the Wednesday number one.
The third play involved a split left and right in an attempt to drag defenders away from a horizontal block and open a gap for two players to run straight into the six-yard box largely unhindered. As well as this, Sharp marks the goalkeeper again with the same intention of screening and reducing movement.
What confirmed to me that these were rehearsed was not just the shape and movement of these plays, but the organising before the corner was taken. At least two players were speaking to each other, orchestrating who and where they were running and sometimes followed by a ‘no look’ tap of an arm to suggest a confirmation of what play was to be used. Sheffield United came pretty close to scoring from these corners and it was clear it was putting Sheffield Wednesday under tactical stress.
The Blades contain Sheffield Wednesday
In the first few minutes of the game, United pressed high and right into Wednesday’s half trying to gain numerical superiority. From this throw-in below, Sheffield United move up the field in an attempt to increase chances of winning the second ball and to build an attack from there. Though Sheffield Wednesday won the ball, their attempts to hit the ball upfield to alleviate pressure were constantly thwarted by United winning the aerial duels and sending the ball back.
This kept Sheffield Wednesday under high pressure early on and all United needed to find was a way to convert this pressure into a transition to attack.
Wednesday reluctant to play from the back
Although Sheffield Wednesday were at home in front of a loud home crowd, they signalled their lack of confidence from playing from the back with possession. Wednesday would kick the ball up long upfield and hope to win the first and second balls. From there, hold onto possession to frustrate Sheffield United and prevent them from creating attacking chances.
‘The Blades’ soon clicked onto this strategy and with their 3-5-2 formation would bolster numbers into the likely target zone. With superior numbers along with Sheffield Wednesday’s reluctance to press high, United would win possession and instantly take one line of defence out. A simple vertical pass forward would then beat another defensive line. however, Wednesday kept their back four firmly in their own half blocking United’s further advances.
Split marking in favour of high pressing
With not wanting to commit numbers forward for a high press, Sheffield Wednesday preferred sending the two forwards along with a midfielder to ‘split mark.’ The Wednesday players would sit in between United players ready to instantly chase whoever received possession. You can see below how this was effective, especially with Sheffield United only playing three at the back. It put United under self-inflicted pressure with trying to play directly from the goalkeeper. Consequently, giving time for Wednesday to set their defence and anticipate an attack.
Both teams short of ideas going forward
Both teams attacked judiciously most of the time which sapped momentum out of both teams’ game plan. Often, both teams would attempt to penetrate down the wings in order to cross a quick ball for an attacker. But even so, the defending team would always be well-set-up to defending against attacks down the wings. Below we can see a ball has been passed to the right winger but he is now completely out of options. Three United players have him pressed as well as both forward passing lanes blocked. Additionally, the attacks are man-marked giving absolutely no hope for progression.
Sheffield Wednesday’s hopes lay in just not wanting to lose the derby and seemed happy at just keeping their local rivals out. A low compact block was employed for the majority, frustrating Sheffield United’s attacks.
A mixture of man-marking and zonal lumped together with the low compact block frustrated ‘The Blades’ even further. Despite getting numbers forward, United just couldn’t find a clear way through to penetrate Wednesday’s lines.
Even with United’s star player this season, Oliver Norwood, Wednesday managed to do enough to keep this key player out of the game using these defensive tactics.
Apart from Sheffield United’s early and late advances (blue), the attacking momentum was fairly tame. The statistics showed that United had the edge which told the story fairly. One thing to point out though is the number of fouls. Wednesday committed 16 with the rivals 18. An average game consists of around 20 fouls in the Championship. The fouls, however, didn’t seem to be overly aggressive as you would imagine a derby to be but instead little ‘niggly’ fouls to stop or slow down play.
It’s safe to say that neither side needed a no-score draw. United could have done with the extra two points to bolster their case for promotion from the Championship. Both teams equally neutralised each other out of the game. The heavy downpour of rain also played a part in slowing both team’s progress down. This, along with a real lack of ambition going forward, ensured this was going to be drawn at best. Nevertheless, both teams will be fairly content with this result.
Sheffield United next face strugglers Rotherham at home whilst ‘the Owls’ are away to Frank Lampard’s play-off hopefuls Derby.
If you love tactical analysis, then you’ll love the digital magazines from totalfootballanalysis.com – a guaranteed 100+ pages of pure tactical analysis covering topics from the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga and many, many more. Buy your copy of the February issue for just ₤4.99 here, or even better sign up for a ₤50 annual membership (12 monthly issues plus the annual review) right here.