Kevin Gage Column: The amazing tactical masterstroke that sums up Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United side

Jack OConnell
Jack OConnell
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As the dust settles on Bramall Lane after the comprehensive & total demolition of Hull City on Saturday afternoon, it really begs the question of just how many highs we can possibly experience as fans this season.

We were spoilt last time round with the all-conquering 100-point title-winning team and the scenes that followed each game, but surely no-one could really have predicted us to take THIS division by storm as well, could they?

Because that’s what we’ve done, are still doing, and it’s partly down to a very unique style of football and team ethos that actually has to be seen to be believed. And what’s more, we are getting better and better at it with every game.

I’d called the first 45 minutes at home to Reading as the best footballing display I’d seen in my 26 years up here as a player and then a fan. That was some statement obviously, but fast forward to the next home game and we seem to have bettered it with a masterclass of attacking football, full of positive intent, invention, and ability combined with the pace, power and passion we now take for granted in a Chris Wilder side.

It was unreal, but it did actually happen and Leon Clarke has the matchball to prove it. He scored four and without exaggeration could, and maybe even should, have scored six by himself. On any other day the team could easily have tallied eight.

With seven wins from eight home games [most of them comprehensive victories] it seems teams just cannot cope with our style of play. Even that one loss to Norwich was a travesty after we had battered them into near submission, and walked off to a standing ovation from 25,000 Blades. I use the term ‘style of play’ but those three short words don’t really do justice to the many parts of the team structure & character that make-up a ‘style of play’.

Chris Wilder

Chris Wilder

I’ll choose to focus on just the one characteristic of our style that I’ve been commenting on for months but now people are realising just what a remarkable feature of our play it truly is. It’s this: WE PLAY WITH OVER-LAPPING CENTRE-BACKS.

Read that line again. The descriptions ‘over-lapping’ and ‘centre-backs’ surely cannot ever have been used before in any kind of football coaching manual, training session or managerial team-talk in the history of football, yet it happens UMPTEEN times in every home game!

It’s fast becoming a hugely important feature of our play as Jack O’Connell or Chris Basham regularly stride forward with (or without) the ball and join the attack deep into the opposition half. JOC is particularly impressive at it and he must frighten the life out of any opposition full-back as a 6ft 3in muscular centre-back comes charging down the line, legs and arms pumping, screaming to be fed the ball as he over-laps the wing-back!

Similarly Chris Basham, another 6ft 3in athlete who will run, tackle & chase all day, can use his midfield experience to know when to step forward and create overloads out wide. Bash takes it a stage further and sometimes cuts INSIDE with the ball, driving at the shell-shocked defence, whilst on the opposite side, Jack will often follow his pass forward and end up in the opposition penalty box looking to get on the end of any chance that develops.

Chris Basham

Chris Basham

It’s FABULOUS to witness, and it really epitomizes everything that this current Sheffield United side are about. We certainly do play ‘on the front foot’ as the manager describes, and alongside the fitness and energy to get about the pitch, there is an equally important character trait that is obviously instilled in this team. It’s simply the willingness, the enthusiasm and the DESIRE to do the work in the first place. Without those three, it really doesn’t matter how fit you are.

So, to those football outsiders who look at our team shape, we play with three centre-backs. Or five at the back. Or a sweeper system. Or two centre-backs. Or one. Or….anyway, you get my drift. The truth is we play all of those systems, at various stages of every game, but the absolute key is we flood men forward when the correct opportunity arises, especially down the flanks, and if the nearest man is a centre-back then so be it. It’s certainly different and it definitely works for us.

I played in a Villa team that finished as runners-up to Liverpool in the 1989-90 season and we used a three centre-back system too. However, Kent Neilson (a 6ft 4” Danish international, Paul McGrath (no words needed) and Derek Mountfield (a cup and title winner with Everton) didn’t venture forward one bit as they were out-and-out defenders, did their jobs brilliantly well, and it certainly worked for us.

Rarely in football does anything completely new or unique crop up, but over the past decades various formations, systems and styles of play have come and gone. Some have endured the test of time and will be around forever, some were a flash-in-the-pan and never heard of again (Terry Venables 1996 England ‘Christmas tree’ formation anyone?).

From the late great Herbert Chapman nearly a hundred years ago who was perhaps the first man to actually organize his group of players into a formation (remember right-halfs, inside-lefts, etc?) to the modern day Pep Guardiola and his ‘tiki taka’ style, managers have always been keen to adapt and find a system of play to suit their players.

Sir Alf Ramsey broke new ground and won a World Cup with his 4-3-3 ‘Wingless Wonders’, and a decade later Ajax and the Holland team of the 70s pioneered ‘Total Football’ where every outfield player should be able to interchange position if required. In the 1980s a more robust, direct and straightforward 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 was the norm and all Blades know how much success that bought managers like Dave Bassett! It’s also a system favoured by a certain Chris Wilder in his previous managerial jobs!

The game evolved further in the 90s with a new breed of ‘sweepers’ sometimes being used in defence, sometimes dropping five or ten yards behind a back four. We’ve also had ‘diamonds’, ‘false nines’ and all manner of different ideas.

But, and here’s the thing… In 37 years of being in and around professional football, I have genuinely never seen the regular use of over-lapping centre-backs as a deliberate attacking ploy and one that works so damned effectively! So eat your heart our Pep Guardiola, ‘cos there’s a new innovator in town and either by accident or design Sheffield United have developed a new style of play. It’s not Pep’s ‘tiki taka’, but it’s similar….

It’s Tufty’s all-out ‘attack attaka’… and my word, it works very very well. Long may it continue!

Kevin Gage owns The Manor House: bar/hotel/cafe, High St, Dronfield. @ManorHouse_S18. Follow him on Twitter: @gageykev