The tactical war set to be waged at Bramall Lane, as Sheffield United prepare for battle against Chelsea
Later this afternoon, after providing his coaching staff with a sketch of how Sheffield United plan to approach the game, Chris Wilder will retire to the Steelphalt Academy’s media suite and start poring over footage of Chelsea’s meeting with Tottenham Hotspur.
The action won’t run continuously. The pause button on the laptop loaned from one of the club’s technicians is likely to be pressed repeatedly. It is a process Wilder goes through before every Premier League fixture but which, following Thomas Tuchel’s arrival at Stamford Bridge, has suddenly taken on even greater importance.
“World class, experienced,” was Wilder’s description of his counterpart. “We have to be right on it, because this is what we’re up against. A world class manager with world class talent.”
Wilder takes pride in the forensic level of analysis he performs on opponents. Despite deliberately cultivating an image of being an old school manager, the 53-year-old embraces modern techniques and methods. But Tuchel, who arrived in west London a fortnight ago when Frank Lampard was ruthlessly axed, is a hard man to pin down. The German, who started his coaching career with Augsburg’s reserve team before graduating to Mainz, has already used four different formations since taking charge of tomorrow’s visitors. Trying to second guess Tuchel’s moves, predicting how he will react to a plethora of different situations, will have a bearing on Wilder’s own approach to the contest.
“This is the standard you are working at,” he said. “You have ideas and thoughts going into games, about how you need to react and how you need to approach it. That changes, obviously, every week depending on who you are up against.
“There’s different things to consider leading into games. You go through the process. You take injuries into account, there’s change-ups and whether you might need to force the issue or see a game out; all sorts of different things to contend with and consider.”
Despite winning five of their last seven outings in all competitions, United remain embroiled in a battle for survival after making a desperate start to the campaign; losing 15 of their first 18 matches since finishing ninth last term. Like Wilder, whose conceded staying up was his squad’s number one target at the beginning of the season, Tuchel also has a clear set of objectives. Lampard, who masterminded Chelsea’s victory over United in November, lost his job because owner Roman Abramovic sensed their hopes of Champions League qualification were slipping away following a run of five defeats in eight. Delivering a top four place, preferably whilst bringing the best out of new signings such as Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, featured at the top of the ‘to do’ list Tuchel was handed when he was unveiled as the former England midfielder’s successor.
“I know that they have replaced Frank with a very experienced world class manager. So that’s the standard of the football club. I was one of those who was very disappointed that Frank had gone, with time and the processes that Frank had put in place to improve the club. But they’ve gone out and got someone of Thomas’ standing, which tells you all you need to know about where they are.”
Equally Tuchel knows Wilder, whose interpretation of the 3-5-2 system has been praised by the likes of Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola, will be a formidable adversary.
“We always give it our best shot, no matter who we are up against,” Wilder said. “There’s things you switch, you might do it in different ways, but we’ve always been consistent about that.”
Listening to Wilder describe how decisions are taken inside the technical area before last weekend’s trip to Manchester City conjured up images of a chess game, where strategies are constantly tweaked and refined to counter the opposition’s own adjustments.
“You have your own plan of what you want to do,” he said, ahead of the meeting with Guardiola, who famously includes grandmaster Garry Kasparov among his circle of friends. “But it’s a moving game and you have to move with it, in an instant.”
As well as deciphering tactics, language can be a challenge too with the likes of Guardiola, a proud Catalan, and Tuchel often talking to colleagues in their native tongues.
“I picked up on Pep doing that,” Wilder joked, dismissing the notion that it might be worthwhile getting a German speaker on the bench. “I’m not sure Kyle (Walker) was too sure what was happening when he was on that side of the pitch. We don’t have anyone who speaks Spanish or German, so we’ll be doing our stuff in our best Sheffield, to see if they can understand that.”
Tuchel, whose big break came when he replaced Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund, is also regarded as an innovator and astute tactician - albeit one with a slightly more pragmatic streak than Guardiola, given his willingness to embrace man-marking. After leading Paris St Germain to their first Champions League final last season, Tuchel tasked Ander Herrera with shadowing Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara throughout the match in Lisbon.
“It’s mentally challenging for players and the same for managers,” Wilder said. “You commit emotionally to it. You have to keep a clear head, from every aspect, but you are all in to get a result.
“This is what we all signed up for and myself as a manager too, The higher up you go, the more intensity and scrutiny. You have to use all of your qualities to try and influence a game.”
With the on-loan Ethan Ampadu unavailable for selection against his parent club and George Baldock and Enda Stevens doubts, Wilder’s room for manoeuvre is limited. But, after studying replays of Chelsea’s meeting with Spurs, which they won 1-0, he is convinced there are opportunities United can exploit.
"We’ll keep our cards close to our chest,” Wilder said. “People will understand why.”