Sheffield United are not slaves to 3-5-2 and here's the evidence to prove it as they consider a change at West Bromwich Albion
By his own admission, ever since it became apparent that Sheffield United’s downturn in form was more than a temporary blip, Chris Wilder spends almost every waking hour searching for ways to improve their confidence levels, performances and of course results.
Every game this season has been analysed. Even training schedules, includings days off and meal times, have come under the microscope in case they can offer any clues as to why a team which finished ninth last season enters Saturday’s match at West Bromwich Albion propping up the rest of the Premier League and without a win this term.
But one thing remains off limits to those tasked with helping Wilder find the solution to United’s woes. The 3-5-2 system they have employed in two thirds of their outings since being promoted from the Championship is not up for discussion.
“It would, I think, be quite dangerous to change the way we are playing,” Wilder, the United manager, said. “We’ve been doing it this way over a long period of time. It’s dangerous, I believe, to change something so major. Especially when it’s worked so well in the past. What we need to do, though, is just be better at it. Make sure we’re doing all of the things we used to equally as well.”
United’s take on the shape Carlos Bilardo devised ahead of Argentina’s 1986 World Cup triumph has been the subject of much discussion and fascination in both professional and amateur coaching circles over the past four years, with the phrase “overlapping centre-half” now part of England’s footballing vocabulary. Inevitably, though, calls for them to adopt a different approach have grown in recent weeks as some observers argue United’s recent struggles suggests top-flight sides have now fathomed out how prevent Chris Basham surging upfield in support of his wing-backs while an injury to Jack O’Connell has, even Wilder confessed recently, created an imbalance along the flanks. However, after studying footage of their displays over the course of the past three months, he is not convinced of the need for a radical strategic change.
“If you ask Jurgen Klopp of Liverpool, Pep Guardiola of Manchester City and Frank (Lampard) at Chelsea, all of whom we’ve faced recently, if ours is an easy system to play against then I think you’ll be surprised,” Wilder said. “Personally, I think it’s just a lazy way for people to explain what’s happening at the moment. The same goes for when they say ‘Oh, you’ve been found out.’ That's nonsense because there’s just too much analysis and scouting going on now for anyone to be caught by surprise. Everyone in this division will have known exactly what we were doing before we even came up, because there’s so many analytical tools available now.”
Wilder suspects there is a much more mundane reason behind United’s troubles of late.
“Ball retention isn’t part of a system that’s been sussed,” he noted following their defeat by Chelsea earlier this month. “Giving away two goals because of individual mistakes isn’t either, although I understand why the lads are showing signs of anxiety, because of how things are going.”
Still, with United travelling to The Hawthorns knowing that another loss could see them finish the latest round of fixtures six points adrift of safety, it would be a surprise if Wilder’s presentations to his squad during training this week have focused purely on the need to keep possession better. Particularly as the 53-year-old and his staff will have noted the growing trend for opponents who usually deploy four or five men rearguards to mirror United by selecting a back three themselves. Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leeds and West Ham have all done so this season, with only David Moyes’ side, who triumphed 1-0 at Bramall Lane five days ago, playing with a trio of central defenders in their previous outing. It happened on 10 occasions last term, with seven of those instances coming during or after the festive period. Only two of the 17 wins United recorded across the campaign as a whole came when they faced a three man backline.
Wilder is not as wedded to his preferred 3-5-2 as some observers believe, however. Indeed, during United’s march into the top-flight, they actually set-up in a 3-4-1-2 although Mark Duffy’s departure in the summer of 2019 meant this was no longer an option. With Wilder reasoning that United would benefit from a more physical midfield presence after reaching the highest level - and first John Lundstram and then Sander Berge being tasked with providing it - Duffy was not replaced when his contract expired last summer. The failure to draft in cover for O’Connell during the recent transfer window has been even more costly, with Enda Stevens forced to operate at centre-half to compensate in the Liverpudlian’s absence. A wing-back by trade, the Republic of Ireland’s presence alongside John Egan and Basham means the defensive moves United have spent years choreographing behind closed doors at the Steelphalt Academy are no longer quite as fluent; something both Liverpool and Chelsea exploited when Diogo Jota and Thiago Silva scored at key moments during the visits to Anfield and Stamford Bridge.
Like United, West Brom have also experienced a difficult start to the season - drawing two and losing seven of their outings so far. Intriguingly, their manager Slaven Bilic uses a variation of the 3-5-2 system on a regular basis - lining his side up in a 4-2-3-1 - although he switches to a 5-3-2 when opponents do likewise.
“Ultimately, we just have to work through it, because there’s no magic wand,” Wilder said. “We just have to dig in, because you always get periods like this. We’ll try and give the lads everything they need. But then, after that, it all comes down to what happens on the pitch. But I believe in them and what they’re doing.”