Lineups and Shape
As per usual under Alex Neil, our setup out of possession was designed to nullify the strengths of Sheffield United.
When the United back three had the ball, Simms and Stewart split wide onto Ahmedhodžić and Norrington-Davies to funnel the ball down the centre, behind them Pritchard, Embleton and Neil carried out man-marking tasks on the United midfield trio, and at the back our centre-backs were aggressive against Brewster and N’Diaye, leaving a man spare.
We really effectively congested the central spaces prior to the red card, forcing a couple of high turnovers and denying Sheffield United from playing through us.
Their main avenue of attacks were down our left-hand side to target Clarke at wing back, often looking to get into the space behind him and create 2v1’s with Ahmedhodžić pushing forward.
United were also occasionally able to find N’Diaye behind our midfield line when they were able to overload our backline (Lowe tucked inside when Norrington-Davies pushed on), however these moments were rare.
In possession, again we looked to create from wide.
Pritchard and Embleton would drift towards the flanks to pick the ball up, and Norwood especially had some difficulties tracking Pritchard’s movements in the right channel.
Our passing was excellent in the opening half an hour and the trio in midfield moved the ball sharply.
Simms and Stewart also acted as a fantastic platform for building our attacks, often securing the ball back-to-goal or getting first contacts, but also moving wide to help combinations.
What did the red card change?
Once we lost a man in midfield it instantly became a lot easier for United to dominate possession.
Pritchard had to drop into a midfield two which meant Norwood was free to dictate play, and more importantly United were constantly able to pick up the ball in the spaces either side of our midfield two.
Before the red card, our midfield could match up and our backline were aggressive in closing the spaces between the lines.
However, United now massively overloaded our backline to pin us back, meaning they couldn’t step out to Berger and McAtee if they received in these areas.
They were easily able to shift the point of attack which made it an incredibly difficult job for Pritchard and Embleton to constantly slide across, and also made it easier to create their wide overloads which have been so effective in recent years.
United continued to target our left-hand side which became even more difficult to deal with with ten men. For their second goal, the issues of giving Norwood time and space as the spare man could be seen in-action, as well as the effectiveness of Ahmedhodžić’s 3rd man running into the space behind Clarke who doesn’t narrow off in time.
Switch to a 4-4-1
To address the issues we were having in central areas with United’s 3v2 and easy progression into McAtee and Berger, we switched to a 4-4-1 with Gooch and Clarke tucking really narrow. This narrow positioning massively improved our ability to deny easy passes into those spaces either side of our midfield.
Another benefit was that either O’Nien and Matete could now step out to apply pressure, knowing that the other three in midfield were covering off behind.
Gooch’s goal perfectly summed this up, with O’Nien and then Matete jumping out to press and Gooch and Clarke providing support from a narrow position behind.
Although we didn’t create many clear cut chances, we were very good in possession considering we were overloaded in midfield.
Stewart also did an outstanding job dropping deep to provide a forward passing option, again acting as a platform to get us higher up the pitch.
Despite our improvements out of possession, United were still able to cause us difficulties and pin us deep.
Berge in particular picked up some really intelligent positions in between our lines.
In general, it is hard not to feel relatively positive about the performance, especially in the opening half an hour against one of the strongest sides in the division.
We were really sharp in possession and moved it quickly, but also denied any passes centrally with a well-executed game plan out of possession.
Neil explained his decision to not make any changes at half-time due to wanting to keep the threat of Stewart and Simms up top, however he probably realised how much we were going to struggle with their wide overloads after the second goal and quickly changed.
The change of shape subsequently worked well, denying the central passes and allowing Gooch and Clarke to attack from a more advanced position.
The subs - and Matete in particular - had a really positive impact, which could be vitally important considering some of the key injuries we’ve picked up over the last two games.