Why the tactical war between Sheffield United and Arsenal is unlikely to produce any surprises

Whatever happens, whether Sheffield United cause an upset or slip to yet another defeat, their caretaker manager Paul Heckingbottom and his assistant Jason Tindall are unlikely to be surprised by how Arsenal line-up.

Saturday, 10th April 2021, 6:00 pm

Mikel Arteta the visitors’ former midfielder and Pep Guardiola’s number two at Manchester City before being handed the reins in north London, is widely portrayed as being a sophisticated head coach.

But like United, whose squad has been constructed and fashioned to play a particular way, the Basque appears wedded to one particular formation.

Unfortunately for Heckingbottom, it is a 4-2-3-1, which is widely recognised among tacticians as being an effective foil for the 3-5-2; the shape United have employed for the best part of five seasons.

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Speaking during his pre-match media briefing yesterday, ahead of tomorrow’s Premier League fixture against the Londoners, Heckingbottom acknowledged circumstances have limited United’s room for manoeuvre in terms of both team selection and tactics.

However, as defender Ethan Ampadu reminded before the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief eased himself in front of the Zoom lens, they are doing things slightly differently since Chris Wilder’s departure last month. Even if those adjustments relate to their press - where, when and how - rather than personnel and systems.

With United languishing at the bottom of the table and heading towards relegation, some journalists on the club’s latest conference call attempted to lighten the mood by reminding Heckingbottom of one advantage he does enjoy over Arteta ahead of the contest. However, noting how the leading clubs have evolved to meet the challenges of the modern game - something United must also do better if they return to elite level competition anytime soon - he disputed the notion Arsenal’s involvement in the Europa League on Thursday night would have a dramatic effect on events in South Yorkshire.

“I hope it’s difficult for them, playing in the Europa on the Thursday,” he smiled. “But the top clubs have become accustomed to that. They build their squads for that and arrange their travel plans accordingly. It’s become less of an issue over the years.”

Arsenal's Spanish manager Mikel Arteta gestures during the UEFA Europa League quarter-final first leg football match between Arsenal and Slavia Prague at the Emirates Stadium in London on April 8, 2021: IAN KINGTON/AFP via Getty Images

Heckingbottom and his assistant Jason Tindall have considered changing United’s formation since stepping into the breach. But with a number of key players nursing injuries, and no natural wingers at their disposal, the duo have elected to persevere with the strategy Wilder devised; and which, Heckingbottom reminded on numerous occasions, helped deliver two promotions.

One noticeable change the duo have unveiled, however, is how United try and build attacks. Rather than spraying long diagonal passes across the pitch to their wing-backs, a ploy which became much less effective when Jack O’Connell succumbed to a serious knee complaint, the centre-halves now appear to have been instructed to ‘play out’ more. This has brought new possibilities. But also, with opponents looking to smother Oliver Norwood, now the first point of reference for Amapadu, Phil Jagielka and Enda Stevens, fresh weaknesses.

“We’re looking to get right into the players, in terms of what we want to see,” Heckingbottom said. “The chance to do that has been limited so far, because of fitness issues and the international break, but we’ve been working hard on it this week.”

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John Egan could face Arsenal: Andrew Yates/Sportimage
Paul Heckingbottom is in caretaker charge of Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage