Premier League 2019/20: Sheffield United vs Arsenal – tactical analysis
Last time Arsenal visited Bramall Lane in Premier League, the score read 1-0 in favour of Sheffield United. Thirteen years later most of the things changed but the scoreline. With this win against Arsenal, Sheffield Utd climbed to the top half of the table and Arsenal dropped down to fifth spot.
This tactical analysis will give an overview of Sheffield Utd’s unique style of overlapping centre-halves and how they used the tactics to beat Arsenal at Bramall Lane. This tactical analysis will also convey how the introduction of Alexandre Lacazette and Gabriel Martinelli helped Arsenal later on.
Chris Wilder opted for his usual 3-5-2. He hardly tinkers with his backline and midfield but one part he still hasn’t got it right is his forward line-up. He has been shuffling between Callum Robinson, Oliver McBurnie, Lys Mousset and David McGoldrick to get a productive strike lineup. Against Arsenal, Wilder started with David McGoldrick and Lys Mousset at the front. The usual suspects Oliver Norwood, John Fleck, John Lundstrum sat middle of the park and Enda Stevens, George Baldock provided width in the midfield. Jack O’Connell, John Egan and Chris Basham provided the shield for Dean Henderson in goal.
Arsenal lined up with 4-2-3-1. Emery seemed to have found stability at the back, starting with Calum Chambers, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, David Luiz, and Sead Kolašinac at defence and Bernd Leno was the goalkeeper. Granit Xhaka and Mattéo Guendouzi were the double pivot. Joe Willock was the attacking midfielder. Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pépé were the wingers and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang led the attack.
Set up during attack
Sheffield have a unique style of play. When they attack, they push their centre-halves up on the side of their attack to overload the wings.
Sheffield pushed O’Connell up along with their left wing-back, when they attacked from the left side and Basham up along with their right wing-back, Baldock when they attack from the right side.
McGoldrick was the one who dropped down occasionally to receive the ball and mostly attacked from the left-hand side. It is evident from his heat map.
This picture vividly depicts Sheffield’s style of play and how they overloaded their wings. Fleck who sits at the left side of the midfield joined Stevens, O’Connell and McGoldrick to create a 4 vs 3 situation. O’Connell got away from the shackles of Arsenal defence and provided an unsuccessful cross in the Arsenal box.
Sheffield did the same sequence of play from the left-wing and the right-wing innumerous number of times. They provide approximately 22 crosses per game in the Premier League which mostly comes from their wing-backs and the advanced centre-backs.
Another aspect of their play is overloading the box with too many attackers. Here Stevens crosses the ball in the Arsenal box where he had five players at his disposal. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find one. A box with 5 vs 4 is really a dangerous situation for the opposition but Sheffield’s poor crosses generally failed to trouble the opposition.
Arsenal faced a lot of difficulties while marking Sheffield players. They often left Sheffield’s players too much of space to operate.
In this sequence of play, Willock moved up to block Egan’s path of play and Aubameyang covered any pass to Stevens. Egan had too much time to pass the ball to Basham.
Saka is left with the task of blocking a pass from Basham to two of the Sheffield players since Kolašinac is busy marking Lundstrum who have occupied the right-wing in the final third.
Basham passes to Baldock who has a lot of space to operate and Xhaka is seen left alone in the midfield with a daunting task of preventing Baldock’s progressive run or to mark Norwood’s position in the midfield. Fortunately for Arsenal, Baldock carried on with the progressive run for too long and eventually lost the ball for a throw-in.
First 30 minutes saw Sheffield continuously posing threat from the left hand side. The goal came from a corner kick which was due to the cross from Stevens from the left-wing which was successfully put away for a corner by David Luiz. The corner was poorly marked and resulted in a goal for Sheffield United.
Set up during transition
Too many bodies forward meant problems at the back in case of a counter-attack. There were many instances in the game where the right decisions and implementations could have resulted in a goal for Arsenal.
Minutes after the goal, Sheffield built an attack from the back. This picture shows six Sheffield players in the final third area. David Luiz cleared the ball after a Sheffield turnover.
It led to Egan and Aubameyang going for an aerial duel. If Aubameyang had won the aerial duel and pushed it towards Pépé. It would have been a 2 vs 2 situation which could pose a threat to the Sheffield defence.
This is where Egan is so important to Sheffield Utd. He won five aerial duels against Arsenal more than any, intercepted the ball thrice again the most, and cleared the ball seven times, three more than any other.
Egan becomes the final line of defence along with Norwood and another centre-back. Captain, Norwood is as important as any other in this defensive set up. When a centre-back goes up to assist the attack, Norwood falls back to help Egan with the defence. Norwood attempted ten tackles against Arsenal and he provides that defensive stability which may have been unstable due to the centre-halves moving forward. He is the one who breaks the opposition attack most of the times even before Egan and others have to deal with it.
Another susceptibility during transition is sometimes they lose shape. Here, Basham is seen to leave his position on the right-hand side and switched left to block Saka’s pass. Saka succeeded in passing the ball to the left which left Xhaka with too much of space to operate. This play created the best chance for Arsenal in the game. Pépé failed to touch the ball from six yards to give Arsenal the lead.
Second half and Lacazette & Martinelli’s introduction
Sheffield Utd defended 5-3-2 in the second half, hardly giving space for the Arsenal attack to materialise.
Fifteen minutes into the second-half Chris Wilder moved McGoldrick to the left and shifted to 5-4-1 and then he was replaced by Luke Freeman, a traditional midfielder to pursue the task. Wilder again moved to 5-3-2, when Norwood was replaced by the frontman Oliver McBurnie.
Lacazette and Martinelli’s introduction helped Arsenal in the attack and Arsenal created a few chances after that, but couldn’t capitalise.
Lacazette, Martinelli and Aubameyang in the box were closely marked by the Sheffield defenders. Arsenal full-backs, Kolašinac and Chambers tried to take full advantage of the setup.
Here Chambers crossed the ball for Kolašinac at the far post. Sheffield defenders engaged in marking the Arsenal forwards failed to track the run of Kolašinac at the far end. Fortunately for Arsenal, Kolašinac’s header wasn’t on target.
In another situation, Lacazette and Aubameyang were closely marked by Stevens, O’Connell and Egan. Martinelli was marked by Baldock and Basham. The forwards gained so much attention that it eluded Chamber’s run from the right. Kolašinac’s cross reached the path of Chambers but he couldn’t affect the match result.
Sheffield Utd vs Arsenal had very little to offer from the attacking perspective. Though Arsenal had 69% possession, they only had three shots on target.
Sheffield’s unique nature of pushing the centre-backs up created some problems for Arsenal. Arsenal’s struggle from playing out from the back still continues and it’s time they deal with it. Willock had a poor outing and only had 17 touches. Ceballos’ introduction produced more attacking play for Arsenal. Arsenal’s performances don’t seem to improve and nullifying Aubameyang’s influence seems to do the trick for opponents.
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