In and amongst all the drama, anticipation and downright nerves surrounding derby day, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there’s an actual game of football to be played.
As over 30,000 fans converge on Hillsborough, the outcome will be entirely determined by, at most, 28 players and a handful of backroom staff. So, where and how can the derby be won and lost? Here, Chris Holt and Danny Hall give their tactical masterplans for both sides and assess the key battles that will be played out on Sunday afternoon.
Sheffield Wednesday by Chris Holt
It normally doesn’t happen this early in the season but it seems as though Carlos Carvalhal has already found a settled side that, give or take the odd player, almost picks itself.
Since taking charge of Sheffield Wednesday a little over two years ago, Carvalhal has had problem with using the depth of his squad, though as he will tell you, this is definitely not ‘tinkering’.
However, of late, the vast majority of the team has been maintained and it’s a continuity that is reaping rewards at present, even if you can feel there is an underlying belief within Carvalhal that more of that starting XI could do with being taken out of the firing line at times.
Three of the back four in in-form Jack Hunt, Tom Lees and new boy Joost van Aken will be certain starters while the left back position is not quite so secure.
Adam Reach has shown his versatility in playing there or further up the pitch and has impressed in both areas.
His energy and ability to get up and down the flank, coming up against a United side who get the ball out wide to their wing backs, could see Reach picked for a full-back berth on Sunday.
That would likely mean Barry Bannan pushing out to the left of midfield.
Kieran Lee has been a revelation since returning from injury though his fitness still needs to be managed. Wednesday have done that by utilising the midfielder in wider areas in the past couple of games, but the way he gets from box-to-box and makes those trademark runs in ahead of the strikers will surely mean him taking up a central role alongside the steady influence of David Jones, whose composure will be crucial in the white-hot atmosphere of a derby.
It would be expected then that Ross Wallace will come back in on the right and again, he as a veteran of many big derby games in his career will provide important experience.
Then up front...well there’s no question. Gary Hooper and Steven Fletcher are currently, arguably, the best forward partnership in the Championship. Hooper will drop a little deeper, allowing the midfield to make those runs forward and Fletcher will exploit the space. It is they who are key.
POSSIBLE TEAM (4-4-2): Westwood, Hunt, Lees, van Aken, Reach, Wallace, Lee, Jones, Bannan, Fletcher, Hooper.
Sheffield United by Danny Hall
Just over a week ago, when I first penned this tactics piece, it seemed a piece of cake. United, after all, have largely kept faith with the same side for a while now, both during and after last year’s League One title win after the switch to a 3-5-2 system.
Then came the teamsheet for Saturday’s game against Norwich, with no Billy Sharp, Clayton Donaldson or Leon Clarke. With James Hanson and Caolan Lavery already out, and Ched Evans 60 per cent fit at the most, it was a problem.
In the end Evans laboured, full league debutant David Brooks impressed but United lost. Picking a side for this weekend’s derby suddenly became more difficult.
Chris Wilder has, understandably, kept his cards close to his chest this week regarding the fitness of his strikers, so I’m working on the assumption that Donaldson will be fit after a hamstring injury, but Sharp will miss out. If both are fit, they both start.
Luckily for United, Paul Coutts escaped an FA charge in the week so can resume his partnership with John Fleck in midfield. I expect Mark Duffy to play, although Brooks and Samir Carruthers will also be considered.
The other headache is at right back; Kieron Freeman went off against Norwich, and if he doesn’t make it then George Baldock is a more than adequate replacement. No issues there; or the rest of the defence, really.
Jamal Blackman, the on-loan Chelsea goalkeeper, will start in goal; in front of a settled back three of Chris Basham, Jake Wright and Jack O’Connell, although Spurs loanee Cameron Carter-Vickers is a genuine option, too.
Enda Stevens should play at left-wing back. Understandably in this formation, the two wing-backs provide much of the attacking threat for United.
But the biggest story by far is the availability of United’s captain, Sharp. If he misses out, that maybe opens the door for Brooks to play just behind whoever the main striker will be, and attack from deep.
What is for sure is that whoever plays for Chris Wilder, will give his all in the biggest game of the season so far.
POSSIBLE TEAM (3-5-2): Blackman, Basham, Wright, O'Connell, Baldock, Coutts, Duffy, Fleck, Stevens, Donaldson, Brooks.