Chris Basham reveals the secrets of Sheffield United's pioneering strategy
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But to become one of the overlapping centre-halves in a system which confuses opponents and fascinates some of the sharpest minds in the game is so mentally taxing that even now, four years after first being handed the job, Chris Basham admits he has yet to master every single facet.
“Knilly still has to pull me to one side every now and then, we’ll watch different clips of games together,” he says, detailing the video sessions with assistant manager Alan Knill which usually follow every training session. “I’ll go through it and think ‘Why have I done that?’ There’s so many talented footballers in the Premier League and their mindset is often very different to our one.”
Basham’s admission - that he is yet to perfect the unique demands of a position some credit United with inventing soon after Chris Wilder’s appointment in the summer of 2016 - explains why the relief inside Bramall Lane’s boot room was almost palpable when the 32-year-old agreed a contract extension over the weekend. England does not suffer from a shortage of accomplished defenders. But ones capable of darting upfield and helping out their attackers simply do not grow on trees.
But Basham’s words also expose one of the greatest misconceptions about a United side which, after being promoted from the Championship only 15 months earlier, finished ninth in the top-flight last term.
“You’ve got to think so hard about what you’re doing,” Basham acknowledges. “Fitness-wise, obviously it’s tough. Really tough. But your mind is even more tired after a game. Something that was happening when we came up against Liverpool is a good example of why.
“We’re all wondering why (Sadio) Mane isn’t tracking back, because that’s what we’d do, and then suddenly Allison might catch the ball and he pings it 40 yards to him. So I’m in their box and then I’m racing back to get to our’s. Everyone is different but you can’t switch off for a moment. You’ve got to be switched on and aware of what’s going on around you at all times.
“That’s why we do so much work on our positioning in the week. It hasn’t just come about by accident. You have to know when to stay and when to go, or people will exploit that and take advantage of it.”
By rights, a strategy which combines marauding centre-halves with enterprising wing-backs should be a recipe for chaos. Indeed, as they prepared for the start of the 2019/20 campaign, United were being warned they were certain to be relegated if they employed it against the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Jurgen Klopp’s side. But the naysayers overlooked the attention to detail Wilder, Knill and their colleague Matt Prestridge apply to their work. United’s moves can sometimes look off the cuff. But they have been fine-tuned and choreographed over hundreds of hours on the training pitches at their Steelphalt Academy training complex.
“The gaffer came to me and said he knew I could play in midfield so he knew I had the energy and the drive,” Basham says, casting his mind back to the beginning of the 2016/17 League One season, when Wilder first unveiled what has now become United’s trademark tactical template. “It took me a good year to realise that I was actually still a centre-half, doing what I was doing. But it’s helped me loads and playing there in League One and then the Championship has really helped.
“We do a lot of work during the week, on one on one’s and things like that, to make sure we’re ready for the weekend and I think your own individual ability comes in too.”
“What that doesn’t prepare you for, though, is John Egan shouting at you,” Basham continues, revealing how the Republic of Ireland centre-half is responsible for orchestrating the back three. “He’s really demanding. He sits more than me and Jack (O’Connell). But he sees everything.”
With Wilder clearly minded to continue in the same vein next term, the knowledge Basham has accumulated in recent seasons will prove invaluable when United welcome what is expected to be a small but carefully selected band of new recruits into the building during the present transfer window. With the Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc with the fixture schedule, competition resumes in little over a month to avoid causing further disruption.
“If we bring anyone in, I’m more than happy to help teach them about the role and what we do,” Basham says. “Everyone is different and everyone will bring their own different things to it but the basic principles are the same.
“You need to adjust to it and if Jack Rodwell, who was here with us, ever asked me what he needed to do then obviously I’d tell him. Sometimes it just comes down to your ability though as well.”
“It can be tough,” Basham adds, “When you’ve got the ball at your feet and then try and drive past three or four players and try to lay it off. It’s something I’ve strived to do and to bring more creativity into my game.
“The manager wants me to keep driving forward and really take the handbrake off. I think we’ve done that all the way through so far and we’ll be looking to do it in the future.”