Complete Preview returns as we look at Aston Villa’s latest game, away against Sheffield United.

Words: Guy Poxon | @GuyPoxon


Aston Villa travel to take on the Premier League surprise package – Sheffield United – on Saturday afternoon. And the punchline? This team of misfits, who haven’t seen top-flight football for over 10 years, are the strong favourites.

Sheffield United are one of England’s grand old clubs, and they defend like one, too. Currently sitting 8th in the Premier League, they boast a plus 3 goal difference and have only let in the 3rd fewest goals in the league.

Sheffield’s expected goals against is impressive, too – they’re 7th best for that, and whichever way you spin it their defence is simply superior to Aston Villa’s. A wonder, then, that only Aston Villa boasts a current English international defender (the injured Tyrone Mings), over Sheffield United cult hero Jack O’Connell.

Wild(er) in system, Wild(er) in formation

Mr Wilder has made quite the name for himself in his ascent through the footballing ranks. His last team was Northampton Town where he turned the League 2 relegation candidates into 99-point title winners just two seasons later. He now manages a hard-working team of talented players with Sheffield United, who have rewarded his excellent tactical system with promotion from the Championship and a great start to Premier League life.

Formation: 3-5-2

Line-up: Henderson, O’Connell, Egan, Basham, Baldock, Lundstram, Norwood, Fleck, Stevens, Mousset, McGoldrick

High energy, but compact

Having two strikers and three central midfielders, with a full set of wing-backs means that Sheffield have plenty of numbers in the advanced areas of the park. They can press very quickly from the front and cause opposing defences a lot of problems. 

It seems counter-intuitive, but defending from the front and through the midfield has helped to keep the ball away from United’s defence and restrict their opponents to limited chances. Indeed, Oliver Norwood, Enda Stevens, David McGoldrick, John Lundstram and John Fleck are all in the midfield and attacking positions, yet they top the tackles charts for Sheffield. 

Only 27% of Sheffield United’s positional play comes from their own defensive third, with 73% happening in the middle of the park or in their opponent’s defensive third. For a defensive team, Sheffield like to keep the ball forward. 

Most of the time, you can’t really score goals if you’re not in your opponent’s defensive third and Chris Wilder has realised this in good time.

Sheffield aren’t a possession-based team. They defend well as a unit, averaging only 45% possession but it’s rare to see their midfield and defensive line looking out of sync when they are absorbing pressure. 

Unlike Aston Villa’s midfield against Leicester, Sheffield keep a good shape in midfield while still getting close enough to their opponents to create an effective press.

Less effective on the frontline

Despite having two strikers, Sheffield have scored just 19 goals this season, sitting 13th for xG, too. But the slightly less potent attack isn’t through lack of trying – Strikers Mousset, McBurnie, McGoldrick and ex-Villain Callum Robinson all average over 2 shots per 90 minutes each.

Sheffield’s style is quite direct and that hasn’t changed much over time. Fans might remember a potent-looking Sheffield United team a couple of seasons ago, who turned up to Villa Park with the powerful Clayton Donaldson in attack. Their direct balls over the top and accurate through balls trying to split Villa down the middle of defence were rewarded with a 2-2 draw away from home. 

The difference with this Sheffield United team, is that Chris Wilder has had longer to implement his system.

United have a few tricks up their sleeve. One of their midfielders will often join their two strikers to go and sit, or occupy, the opposing defenders and stay ready to receive the ball. The attackers’ sheer numbers can create very regular situations where Sheffield have 3 attackers up against 2 centrebacks. 

Against Norwich in their last outing, you can see three attackers occupying Norwich’s backline and draw out defenders which opens up space for Baldock to turn and shoot – winning the game from the resulting goal. 

And against Wolves, the opener comes from a cross into Sheffield’s loitering forward, Mousset. Sure enough, Sheffield will make life difficult for any backline without necessarily always playing beautiful football.

Overlapping centre-backs? What next?

When fullbacks started marauding forward, we saw a new breed of footballers come through and the game, in honesty, changed. Gone were the throwaway comments about right-back being the “easiest position on the pitch”, and in came the Andy Robertson’s, Leighton Baines’ and Dani Alves’ of this world.

Chris Wilder might just have found the next iteration of footballing tactics to catch on and become the latest craze, like “Gengenpressing”.

Jack O’Connell’s 6.98 rating, 1 assist and 1.52 xGA are really quite high for a central defender playing in a newly promoted team. But the young Englishman joins in the attack to add another string to Wilder’s bow. 

Sheffield’s midfield and fullbacks will play combinations with their forwards to try and create some width. But when the other team marks them well, all of a sudden Sheffield look a man short because they don’t have natural wingers, as they’ve opted for two up front and three at the back. 

So, to get the extra width Sheffield United’s centrebacks actually run out wide, past the marauding fullbacks and attackers to create a further overlap and crossing opportunities. This is why Sheffield United have been able to balance a relatively narrow system in the Premier League without yet being caught out too much – they can keep on the front foot even if their initial plan isn’t working.

Getting the balance right

Dean Smith’s run of games, in truth, has been very difficult with back-to-back games against City and Liverpool, followed by the red-hot Leicester City dispatching Villa last week. Sheffield’s fixture list has been slightly kinder, with some of the big-boys more spread out, but they face difficult games against City and Liverpool over the winter break. 

Aston Villa’s fixtures will, thankfully, ease up and provide some opportunity to generate points. But Villa need to improve on recent performances. In truth, Villa look far too open in defence and cannot afford to give an aggressive team like Sheffield United too much chance to get at the backline. 

The battle in this game could be won or lost by the battle between Aston Villa’s wingers and Sheffield’s fullback system. If Grealish and Trezeguet (or El Ghazi) can get in-behind Baldock and Enda Stevens, it might cause problems for their back three. However, Wilder’s men go into this the rightful favourites.

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