TACTICAL football boff Chris Bland (@blandc_1996) gives us the lowdown on Super Sunday's match-up between Sheffield United and Manchester United.
Sheffield United v Manchester United | Sunday 24th November 2019, 16:30 | Sky Sports
Manchester United travel to Brammall Lane for the first Premier League meeting between these sides since 2007. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side come into the game on the back of two wins in their last three in the league, and sit seventh.
The Red Devils midfield looks potentially short on numbers, with Scott McTominay, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic possibly amongst those on the sidelines, and Solksjaer will need to find a way to adapt.
Sheffield United have been the surprise package of the Premier League campaign, sitting fifth as they head into the game on the back of an impressive unbeaten run, based upon a solid defence. Only conceding nine goals all season has built the foundations for an impressive return, and could spell a problem for the often creatively troubled visitors.
This should be an interesting tactical battle, as Chris Wilder looks to outwit another one of the Premier League big guns.
Blades weakness out wide?
Manchester United’s wins at Norwich and at home to Brighton before the international break have highlighted two main tactical points heading into this tie.
Firstly, it showed how well suited Solskjaer’s side are to breaking quickly against teams who look to take the game to the Norwegian’s team, and secondly, how important Anthony Martial is to his tactics.
United’s front three of Marcus Rashford, Martial and Dan James are well equipped to stretch any side’s backline, and they will relish the challenge of being up against an in-form Sheffield United back three.
The front three will look to drift into the channels, and the 4-3-3 that United will employ will be well suited to exploiting the Sheffield United wide areas, one of the few areas they have shown vulnerability this season.
In their win over Arsenal, Wilder’s side did show susceptibility to this play before going behind, and it was the movement of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang which caused the most problems. The wasteful finishing of Nicolas Pepe let the Blades off the hook at 0-0, before allowing them to settle in as Lys Mousset scrambled home from a corner, and Wilder’s excellent game management came to the fore.
The overlapping full backs were also able to create a number of 2v1 situations, and this is once again an area that United are well equipped to exploit. Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s ability to get beyond James, as well as cover defensively, will be key and should offer a strong outlet, whilst Ashley Young’s importance this season has been shown by 1.09 key passes per 90 minutes and an Expected Assist (xA) output of 0.18 per 90, so United will be glad to welcome him back from a ban.
The Blades’ backline has also shown susceptibility to being driven by attackers with pace this season, with the goal from Moussa Djenepo in Southampton’s win highlighting these worries. They have shown an element of vulnerability to the break, particularly when caught high in possession, and in United’s attack they are well suited to pouncing upon these potential worries.
First goal key
It is once Sheffield United take the lead in games where, as aforementioned, Wilder really shows his tactical nous, and it is vitally important that Manchester United find a way to score first in Yorkshire, as otherwise they will have a tough time breaking down this well-drilled, compact defence.
Whilst United will look to attack through the wide areas and exploit the channels, the Blades will be confident of winning the central battle in the middle of the park, particularly with their three central midfielders all in great form, plus the presence of the overlapping centre backs.
Oliver Norwood has been the standout performer in the midfielder, offering composure on the ball averaging 53.5 passes, whilst he also has an eye for a progressive pass, often showcasing his ability to switch the play to his wing backs. His long ball stats are the highest in the league outside the traditional top six, completing 7.3 per game, and his distribution will highlight a key tactical area where the Blades could target the Red Devils.
Rashford’s defensive contribution is at times questionable, and has been targeted by sides. Against Bournemouth, Joshua King’s acrobatic opener came from an overload and cross down the right flank, as Rashford’s lack of tracking left his full back 2v1.
If United are to leave Young exposed it could create problems, so George Baldock could have a large influence upon the game in getting beyond Rashford, however he will need to be cautious in doing so as alluded to previously regarding the counter attacking threat, and sets up an interesting tactical battle.
Wilder’s side are not afraid to utilise a direct approach either. Against Spurs, the Blades completed 285 passes, but 90 (39%) where in the final third, and 127 forward, showing a willingness to move the ball into the final third before harnessing the attacking talents of many players.
Harry Maguire is well equipped to deal with the threat of McGoldrick, however Victor Lindelof has at times struggled with the aerial threat. Teams such as West Ham and Crystal Palace have targeted the Swede with long, aerial balls, and subsequently got runners beyond their target man, isolating Maguire’s lack of pace in a high line.
If Sheffield United can target this once again, it brings into play the pace of the second striker, either Callum Robinson or Lys Mousset, who can target Harry Maguire, especially if Manchester United step up with a high line.
McTominay a miss
Scott McTominay will be a huge miss in the middle of midfield for Manchester United, both in an attacking and defensive sense, with a lack of replacements available for Solksjaer’s side. His three goals, including a goal against Brighton last time out, showcase his attacking threat, whilst his height against a direct Sheffield United side could well be missed.
Averaging 2.3 tackles, 1.3 interceptions and 1.3 clearances, his defensive work will be missed, and Manchester United may need to find a compromise to replace his defensive work at the expense of his attacking output, something that is worrying given the lack of creativity they already suffer from.
His composure, and ability to pass through the lines will also be a miss, and it is vital that United find a way to replace this as otherwise relying upon Fred, and potentially a deeper Andreas Pereira, could spell trouble.
Finally, Goalkeeper Dean Henderson will be a huge miss for the Blades, having kept five clean sheets this season, and it will be a big ask for Simone Moore to replace the England shot-stopper, and is certainly worth factoring into the thinking.
The combined approach for Sheffield United offers them a great variety in play, whereas the worries for United will be if they need to take the game to Sheff Utd, particularly with the influential Paul Pogba still missing, and worries over a lack of creativity to break teams down when requiring to take the game to them still apparent.
It opens up an intriguing tactical battle, so what does that mean on the betting front?
The betting angles
Manchester United’s approach, where they will look to overload the wide areas, away from the packed middle, as well as utilising the pace of the front three in the channels, means that corners for the away side appeal.
The lack of options, and attacking threat in central areas reinforces the idea that they will look to move the ball away from the central areas, so priced at 6/5 (Bet365), Manchester United to have Over 5.5 Corners is my first port of call.
McTominay’s absence brings about an interesting tactical conundrum for Solksjaer, particularly with a lack of depth in central midfield. He will either be forced to use a youngster in James Garner, drop Andreas Pereira deeper, or potentially revert to a back three.
As a result, I believe this will see Maguire have a higher influence on the ball to what he normally does, especially as the Red Devils will be expected to be allowed more possession than in previous weeks, especially in their own half.
Against Crystal Palace, Newcastle and West Ham, where United were afforded a lot of the ball in their own half, Maguire’s passes completed were much higher than average, at 81, 97 and 63 respectively. Considering the increased ball possession expected, as well as increased pressure on Maguire to potentially take control, the centre half to complete 65+ or more passes at 5/6 (SkyBet) takes appeal.