To many, Leicester City are being seen as the surprise package in the Premier League this season. Brendan Rodgers has transformed what was a stale team into a side that is not only becoming favourites for a top-four finish but also contenders in the title race.
Yet, given the tactical brilliance of Rodgers and the progress that was already evident at the end of last season, Leicester were almost expected to push for a Champions League spot with such a talented squad. This was a train that already set off as soon as the Northern Irishman was appointed seven months ago.
Sheffield United Thriving Under Chris Wilder
Not the Only Surprise
As a result, there is a strong argument to suggest that the most surprising team this season is not Leicester but, in fact, Sheffield United. After earning promotion to the top flight this season, Chris Wilder and his side are enjoying a sensational start to life back in the Premier League. They are currently fifth after 12 games, ahead of the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham, against whom they picked up another point on the road at the weekend.
Despite spending only £40 million on players mostly from the Championship in the summer, Wilder has unearthed quality in the individuals to match the system he wants his side to play. The 52-year-old is enjoying consistent success with his 3-5-2 formation, which revolves around a compact midfield and overlapping centre-backs with the aim of adding more width and size to their attacks.
“You can’t take the shackles off completely in the Premier League when you’re Sheffield United and you’ve just come up,” Chris Wilder explained to Sky Sports. “We felt that more bodies in that area would strengthen us and it has. If we’d have played two midfield players in there, the way we play, we’d have been really open to the counter. It’s huge in modern-day football now, that speed a team goes from one box to another.”
“One thing that won’t change is the three at the back and the two wing-backs because it’s natural round pegs in round holes for us in terms of the way we play, but is the number 10 role still important? I think so. We’ve changed shape a couple of times – a diamond, two nines and a 10, two 10s and a nine – and, when the time’s right, you have to have go-tos. We might open up in certain games when we feel we need to but we’ve been in games. The balance has been good from our point of view in terms of the shape out of possession and what we’ve done in possession.”
Impressive Defence Under Chris Wilder
The impact of Wilder’s tactics is evident, particularly on the defence. The Blades have conceded just nine goals in the league this season – only Leicester have conceded fewer. In addition, they are conceding only 11.4 shots per game – the seventh-fewest behind the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. United also rank joint first for number of clean sheets (five) and third when it comes to total interceptions (149).
The emphasis on such a compact but equally unorthodox system has brought Sheffield United particular success against the Premier League’s big boys. So far, Chris Wilder’s men have beaten Arsenal, drawn at Chelsea and Tottenham, and were unlucky not to pick up a point against Liverpool at Bramall Lane. Victories at home to Crystal Palace, Burnley and away to Everton have also caught the eye.
A key figure in their impressive start to the season has been Oliver Norwood, the Northern Ireland international at the base of the midfield. The 28-year-old ranks joint-seventh for total passes from a midfielder in the Premier League this season (642), while no outfield player has completed more long balls (87). Norwood has also made more interceptions (20) than the likes of Fabinho and N’Golo Kante.
“He’s been great for us since he came to the football club,” Wilder told BBC Radio Sheffield. “His record getting out of the Championship was there for everyone to see. He has a great background at Manchester United and like a lot of players do, had to go from Manchester United and carve a career out. Over 50 international caps, promotions on his CV. He’s been a brilliant addition to the squad that I’ve assembled.”
While Norwood controls proceedings from the base, fellow midfielders John Lundstram and John Fleck, previously fringe players under Wilder, are now thriving from the system which allows them to play in a more attacking role, scoring four of Sheffield United’s nine league goals this season. Before the start of the 2019/20 campaign, Lundstram only had one goal to his name in nearly two years and Fleck had also only netted once since September 2018.
Wilder’s emphasis on moving the ball quickly has also allowed forwards Lys Mousset, David McGoldrick, Oli McBurnie and Billy Sharp, all unproven at Premier League level, to receive service from midfield and support when going forward. So while the Blades remain compact in midfield and defence, confidence is growing in their attacking game, with four goals being scored in their last two league outings.
“I want us to establish ourselves in the Premier League. Arsenal, Liverpool… I want these games to be regular fixtures,” Wilder told Sky Sports. “You might have seasons where you have a load of injuries, signings don’t work and it’s a struggle but I want us to keep moving forward, looking up.”
It is difficult to tell whether Sheffield United can keep up their current form but what is sure is that Wilder has built a formation that is working wonders for a club not fancied by many to avoid relegation. Instead, they find themselves around the top end of the table and with opposing teams yet to counteract their system, their dream of being a stable Premier League club now has the chance of becoming a reality.