Prior to the start of the 2019/20 Premier League season, you would have expected newly promoted Sheffield United to come into this match with Spurs as the clear underdogs.
Under their Argentinian coach, Mauricio Pochettino Spurs have consistently finished in the top four and last season, of course, saw the north London side reach the final of the Champions League.
Contrast this to the expectations on Sheffield United as they gained promotion from the Championship last season. The summer transfer business from the newly promoted side centred around evolution rather than evolution as their coach Chris Wilder kept faith in the side that had been so successful last term.
As a new coach to the Premier League, there was a large amount of disinformation surrounding Wilder with some in the media labelling him as a ‘typical English coach’ who would favour a strong defence with target forwards who would receive direct passes in transition before looking to work the ball into the penalty area.
These assumptions are, in fact, almost completely wrong. Yes, Wilder is a coach who places a large emphasis on man-management and he is a master of getting his players ready for each game with motivational style. We should not, however, discount the level of tactical ability that Wilder has shown so far this season.
A lot has been made of Wilder’s use of overlapping centre-backs as the two wide centre-backs in the back-three would look to move high when they are in possession to create overloads against the opposition.
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Whilst we have seen this in isolated moments this season this is not a constant factor in the attacking game model for United. Instead, their success so far this season has been build on strong defensive performances with the midfield block, in particular, impressing out of possession.
This has been coupled with impressive attacking play with the likes of the left wing-back Enda Stevens looking especially impressive.
At the time of writing it is clear the pre-season narrative has been flipped on its head. Sheffield United are currently in 6th place on 16 points whilst Spurs are down in 11th albeit only 3 points behind on 13 points. What is perhaps more concerning for Spurs fans is that their underlying statistics suggest that this is exactly where both sides deserve to be.
Here we’re going to break this upcoming match down tactically with a view to showing how Sheffield United can overcome Spurs.
It can be important when previewing a game in this manner to provide some statistical background that informs our thinking for the rest of the article.
The above graphic is taken from Wyscout and shows the tactical systems that Pochettino has used to date with Spurs this season. It is safe to assume that we will see a back four with variations of that defensive system being used for the majority of the season so far.
We have already established that Spurs are 11th with 13 points, we need to look deeper though.
They have scored 16 goals in the league from an expected goals value of 13.48. They are therefore outperforming their expected goals by 2.12 which is not a huge variance.
They have so far conceded 15 goals with an expected goal against value of 17.55. They are outperforming this metric as well by 2.55 goals. They are averaging 11.05 shots at goal per 90 minutes but conceding 14 shots at goal per 90.
These statistics paint a picture that should be greatly concerning for Spurs fans. Normally when a so-called ‘big’ team is underperforming there are still positives in the statistics and often they are underperforming their expected goals metrics. If anything Spurs should be in a worse position than they are at the moment.
With that said we should also expect to see a slight drop off from Sheffield United especially given the way that their defence is performing above expectations. They have scored 12 goals from an expected goal value of 13.64 and are underperforming in this area by 1.64, not a huge drop-off. They have conceded 8 goals from an expected goal against value of 13.37. A 5.37 goal over performance. Whilst this would normally cause concern they are also only conceding 9.61 goals per game, again showing their defensive strength.
Sheffield United have been far more consistent that Spurs with their tactical systems used this season. 71 per cent of the time we have seen a back three or even a back five and there is little sign that we can expect to see something different coming into this match.
Spurs attacking threat
Even though Spurs are vastly underperforming expectations this season there can still be no doubt that they have talented and dangerous players at their disposal.
Chief amongst these is their forward Harry Kane. The narrative of poor performance surrounding Spurs this season has also been applied to Kane with some pointing to a drop in shot numbers and summarising that he is a player in decline following a series of injuries.
In fact, Harry Kane is still an excellent finisher of chances, the issue this season is that the Spurs midfield is struggling to progress the ball into the final third with Christian Eriksen especially finding form hard to come by.
Along with Kane, the performances of the South Korean international Heung-Min Son have been key in the attacking phase. It remains to be seen whether Son will be playing in this match as he has received a red card for his challenge on the Everton midfielder Andre Gomes, I expect that Spurs will appeal this though and he should be able to play.
While Kane acts as the focal point of the Spurs attack Son is expert at drifting in space to either side of Kane in order to support the attacking movement. These are the areas that Sheffield United will have to be careful of defending.
In the above graphic, we see a typical attacking structure from Spurs. Harry Kane will operate as the focal point of the attacking structure and he will typically push high onto the last defender for the opposition, at least in the first phase of the attacking movement, we then see him look to drop slightly deeper when Spurs are enjoying a period of sustained attacking movement.
The challenge for the back-three for Sheffield United will come in covering the danger of Kane and the movement of Son around him.
We saw this in full effect recently in the match between Spurs and Liverpool with Son constantly looking to exploit the space left behind when the Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold moved high.
Liverpool struggled as Kane pulled onto the right-sided central defender and Son moved around him.
With a back-three Sheffield United have more options to cope with this threat. Expect to see John Egan deal with the threat of Kane while the wide central defenders will have dual roles. The player closest to Son will mark him while the opposite side central defender will move across to cover and balance the defensive line.
Sheffield United have to dominate 1vs1’s
A large part the issues faced this season by Spurs surrounds the fact that with the ball and without the ball they are too narrow in their structure with little natural width. This is a result of Pochettino choosing to use the likes of Christian Eriksen or Moussa Sissoko In the midfield and Heung-Min Son on the other. Neither of those are natural wide players and all have a tendency to drift inside constantly. The width should then be provided by the full-backs but they are often slow to move forward to support the attack.
This means the wing-backs for Sheffield United will have opportunities to dominate the Spurs full-back 1vs1. The two forwards will also be able to run into space wide to drag the Spurs centre-backs out of position.
Expect to see the two forward players position themselves on the outside of the Spurs central defenders with Sheffield United looking to play quickly into the wide areas to exploit the space behind the Spurs full-backs.
Although the likes of Davinson Sanchez possess great pace he is still not comfortable when defending in space and facing his own goal.
Using their centre-backs in the attacking phase
We have already touched on the fact that Sheffield United use their centre-backs to join the attacking phase situationally. This is something that I would expect to see them use in this match in order to further overload the wide areas and create opportunities to play through Spurs defensive block.
We have already discussed the fact Spurs’ tactical structure is extremely narrow whether they have the ball or not. This can be exploited by Sheffield United in possession.
Enda Stevens at left wing-back has been a key attacking player for them this season AND we will see him accessed often by the central defenders as they look to progress the ball forward towards the Spurs half.
Expect to see the left sided forward offer a vertical passing option while the left sided centre-back will push out to support Stevens on the same line inside.
Going into this match Sheffield United are going to be anything but underdogs. They appear to be perfectly setup not only to negate the attacking threat of Spurs and Harry Kane but to take full advantage of the defensive problems that Spurs have had so far this season.
Defeat in this match could increase the pressure on Pochettino with the Spurs fan base continuing to support their coach but their patience will not be limitless.
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