Sheffield United’s 3–5–2: The Art of the Overlapping Centre-Back
Part of me wants Sheffield United get promoted to see whether Chris Wilder is brave enough to stick with his overlapping centre-back approach.
For those that don’t follow the Championship, Sheffield United play a largely possession-based 3–5–2/3–4–3 shape (usually a slight variation on the above). However, when they work the ball wide during build-up play, the wing-back will often tuck inside when they reach the final third and the wide CB on their side of the pitch will make the sort of overlapping run you’d expect to see from a WB outside of them. The WB on the opposite side of the pitch usually takes up a position on the edge of the D to offer an option for cut backs, while also helping to mop up any clearances, and the opposite wide CB often moves into the box to attack the far post.
This goal against Swansea is quite a good example of how it works:
The player hugging the left touchline throughout this clip is the left-sided CB Jack O’Connell (number 5) and he’s the one who eventually cuts the ball back to the edge of the box. The player who finishes it is the RWB George Baldock (number 2), who actually moves all the way over to the left wing to get involved in build up play before curving his run back to the edge of the box. The player at the back post is the RCB Chris Basham (number 6).
It’s not something they exclusively employ against opponents who set up with a deep, compact defensive shape either. This clip from their game away at Villa demonstrates how Sheffield United like to try and create these overloads down one flank before switching it out to the other side to probe there instead:
At the end of the move, you can get a good idea of the structure that Blades try to establish around the penalty area. The player on the ball cutting inside is RWB George Baldock, the player outside him is the RCB Chris Basham, and the player hovering around the edge of the D is LWB Enda Stevens (3). Also note how striker Billy Sharp (9) darts to the edge of the box to provide an option for a cut back:
This game against Bolton illustrates just how much involvement the two wide CBs have in attacking patterns:
After making the initial overlapping run, O’Connell knocks the ball inside to McGoldrick, who then lays it off to Mark Duffy. Rather than tracking back immediately, O’Connell patiently stays in his advanced wide position for several phases of play before eventually swinging in a cross that’s cleared.
The beauty of Chris Wilder’s approach is that it’s systemic and built on the tactical intelligence of his squad; Sheffield United recently had a minor injury crisis that robbed them of Basham and O’Connell and yet they experienced no dip in results with Martin Cranie and usual LWB Enda Stevens in the wide CBs positions. With that said, they are much more effective with their first choice players in those specialised roles and, though Basham’s dribbling ability is a useful tool that allows him to resist pressure and enables him to surge through the lines, it’s Jack O’Connell who really makes this system tick:
O’Connell’s athleticism, composure, and long range passing, coupled with his crossing ability, make him perfectly suited for this unconventional role.
The system is something that they developed when they were in League One — because they were the dominant team, they were regularly finding themselves faced with teams packing numbers behind the ball in a super deep block, so the overlapping run from a central defender was a good way of disrupting that.
It’s an interesting way of attacking because it’s so unusual but it also lets them do some different things with the other players in this shape. Most teams who play with a 3–5–2ish system will have one or more of their central midfielders bombing forward to offer a goal threat (think Lingard/Dele for England this summer or Pogba/Vidal for Juve under Conte). Because Sheffield United have the wide central defenders and wing-backs contributing in the final third, they can afford to pick a different profile of central midfielder — usually smaller, more technical passers who can distribute the ball from deeper positions, rather than having to directly offer goal contribution. At the start of the Swansea clip, you can see John Lundstram initially on the right side covering the space vacated by Basham and by the end of it he’s drifted over to the other side of the pitch to cover the space left by O’Connell’s forays forward. These deep-lying midfielders provide defensive insurance with their positioning, which means they can get away without a typical destructive ball winner in the middle of the park.
The other thing the overlapping CBs does for Sheffield United is enable their strikers to play entirely within the confines of the penalty area if they want to. The most advanced central midfielder is the one who offers support to the wide CB and WB when they’re attacking down a flank, so the strikers can take up positions within the frame of the goal rather than getting dragged out wide to assist with build-up. McGoldrick has a tendency to do that anyway because that’s just the type of player he is, but it liberates Billy Sharp to effectively just play as a poacher.
Wilder’s 3–5–2 is a bit different defensively as well because they don’t really defend like a conventional back 3/5. When their opponents attack out wide, the wing-back on that side will aggressively push forward to close them down as soon as they get past a point level with the centre circle. The wide CB on that side slides over to play FB and the WB on the opposite side drops back to play as another FB on the far side.
A lot of teams who play with 3 central defenders use this sort of pendulum approach, but the WB who is pressing pushes so high that Sheffield United essentially end up defending in a 4–4–2 shape, which is something I haven’t seen much of. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer recently implemented something similar with Diogo Dalot and Ashley Young during Manchester United’s games away at PSG and Arsenal but they only used that sort of defensive hinge down their right side, whereas Sheffield United have the fluidity to switch into that 4–4–2 shape down both sides of the pitch.
Sheffield United play really slick, fluid, innovative football and it would be good to see it rewarded with promotion.