Football Features

Chris Wilder’s classy catenaccio can’t stop relentless Liverpool beating Sheffield United

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 14:44, 28 September 2019

After a great afternoon of football, Liverpool made it 16 Premier League wins in a row by gutting out a 0-1 win over Sheffield United.

Here’s something you probably didn’t expect to read here: Sheffield United are the most tactically organised “United” in the 2019/20 Premier League. West Ham United have a Premier League winning manager who once racked up 96 points in La Liga, Newcastle United are a storied team with a fantastic legacy and Manchester United have more money than God and spent over £140m on defenders this summer.

Yet none of them are as well-drilled and organised as Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United. The Blades are an incredible team whose defensive structure recalls the kind of incredible catenaccio of some of Serie A’s best. This wasn’t a post-modern deconstructed anti-football “men behind the ball”, though. This was a modernist masterpiece.

Sheffield United line up in a 3-5-2 but when they have the ball, wide defenders Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell spread wide and overlap well into the opposing half. This allows the Blades to push forward and overload opponents in key wide areas, which in turn allows them to spring forward on the break in ways that can overwhelm opponents.

Today Liverpool struggled to handle the Blades when they broke forward. The centre-backs overloading the wide midfielders and the full-backs. In particular they exposed the spaces around Trent Alexander-Arnold, knowing that if the Englishman has one weakness, it’s positional defending. This also allowed them to run at Joel Matip (who was decidedly shaky today) rather than Virgil van Dijk.

Of course what allowed them to spring forward on the break was the way they managed to shut Liverpool down. The back three essentially began man-marking the front three, which would normally allow Liverpool’s full-backs to run riot. But the discipline of United’s wing-backs and wide midfielders to track them meant that the Reds could never really find much space. And when they did send crosses in, the Blades defenders were back in their Championship comfort zone, clearing with ease.

Klopp said post-match that his players didn’t take enough risks, but then also pointed out that they really couldn’t take risks because of the way that Sheffield United swamped them out of the game. The Blades were so intelligent in the timing of their interceptions and clearances that the Reds couldn’t generate any momentum. They tried to build passing moves but anything through the middle was shut down and out wide. And what little space they found out there ended up playing into their hosts hands.

Perhaps the biggest compliment to Chris Wilder was that Liverpool began the second half matching his Sheffield United’s formation. Jurgen Klopp clearly hoped that he would be able to destabilise the Blades by doing this, but all that happened was his own players became uncomfortable. So he switched back to the 4-3-3 before later bringing on Divock Origi and going to a 4-2-3-1. And even that didn’t work. Not in the way Klopp would have wanted in terms of shifting control of the game over to Liverpool.

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Still, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and on occasion the sheer quality differential between the sides was clear.

There was a moment in the first half when Virgil van Dijk launched an ICBM of a pass, which flew off his foot, entered the upper atmosphere then came down covered in ice and landed perfectly in the path of Sadio Mané. The Senegalese had made a subtle diagonal run inside Chris Basham and was heading clean through on goal. Scoring seemed inevitable, but Mané scuffed his shot wide.

In the second half, Andrew Robertson made a penetrative run then found Mané, who saw John Lundstram knick the ball off his toes, but he may have caught Mané as well. The Sengalese didn’t appeal. In fact no Liverpool players did, and so VAR was never consulted. It probably wouldn’t have awarded a penalty, although with the scattershot way it’s been applied you never know.

If it wasn’t the quality that looked like it might break the Blades down, it was the fact that their system leaves them playing on a razor’s edge against a front three. Any slip or misjudged movement and the Reds will be through. Late in the first half, Jack O’Connell had pushed up high but they turned the ball over and with the No.5 up the the field, Mohamed Salah streamed into space, sending John Egan backpedalling desperately. With Egan off balance, Salah fed Roberto Firmino and the Brazilian faked a shot, then fed Mané on the overlap, who hit the post.

Late in the second half there was a sloppy pass back that again caught poor Egan off-balance. The Irishman tried to adjust but couldn’t and Salah was clean through on goal. The Egyptian struck a low shot, but Dean Henderson made a fantastic save with his foot to keep it out and leave Liverpool’s lead at one. Still though, the margin for error is razor thin and it’s easy to see how one could fall either side.

In the end, Sheffield United were the architects of their own demise. They had made it to 70 minutes without conceding and even forced Liverpool to pass it across goal instead of into the box. And when Gini Wijnaldum unleashed a tame half-volley from the edge of the box, Chris Wilder might have been happy the Dutchman was forced to take such a low percentage effort. Except Dean Henderson let the ball dribble between his legs. No, really. He “did a Taibi.” A staggering error that handed Liverpool a win they hardly deserved.

But Sheffield United could take so much credit even in defeat. They shared the pitch with the Champions of Europe and were, in all honesty, the better side. Liverpool needed them to make mistakes to really get a chance. The Blades shared in the big chances with their illustrious visitors. Obviously the Reds had the more glaring ones, but it’s not like Sheffield United didn’t miss their share of sitters.

John Fleck had a superb chance but waited just long enough to allow Andrew Robertson to make a superb block, and then even later it was Fleck himself who sent in a gorgeous cross for sub Leon Clarke. This ball was something else, absolutely tearing Liverpool’s defence apart and leaving Clarke with a simple finish, but the 34-year-old veteran put it over.

Liverpool emerged with three points and that is much to their credit. Van Dijk was absolutely immense and, make no mistake, he absolutely had to be, otherwise Sheffield United was going to walk away with three points here today. But Sheffield United showed that their classy catenaccio is absolutely able to scale up to take on the Premier League’s finest. “Not bothered about the pride,” said Chris Wilder post-match, showing that their attitude is spot-on as well. He was upset and rightly so, because his side should have had at least a point today. The Blades are not here to be patronised. They mean serious business.