Sheffield United’s 5-3-2 renaissance: a look at Chris Wilder’s innovative but old-school style reaping success in the Championship

Sheffield born Chris Wilder is quickly becoming a highly reputed manager in the Championship as he propels his boyhood club into automatic promotion contention. Wilder, whom began his managerial career at Alfreton Town, is earning plaudits for his unorthodox tactical style.

After earning his trade in the Yorkshire Sunday league as manager of Bradway FC, Wilder has gained a reputation for using philosophies he learnt when he started out in management. He believes his players should be treat like normal, working-class people who are playing for passion and points, rather than their hefty wage bill. Unlike his promotion contending counter-parts; Marcello Bielsa (Leeds) and Daniel Farke (Norwich City), Wilder’s roots into management stem from the lower reaches of English football.

In a recent interview with Sky Sports, Wilder spoke about his experiences managing in the grass roots of English football.

“It was fantastic experience for me in terms of dealing with different personalities on a Sunday morning, having been out all weekend, and trying to get a team together. Those were my proper early steps into coaching and management, and we had a bit of success in that period as well.”

In his time at Northampton, Wilder managed to drag the Cobblers from out the relegation zone, to a domineering, title winning side the following season in 2015/16. But after heavily utilising the 4-2-3-1 formation and 4-4-2 formation in his time at the Cobblers, what made Wilder reform his tactical emphasis at Sheffield United?

Wilder joined he Blades in the summer of 2016 after Nigel Adkins failed to stamp his footballing philosophy on the team and underachieved by guiding the club to a mediocre mid table finish in his only season in charge. Although Adkins failed to deliver success at Sheffield United on the pitch, off the pitch, his signing of Billy Sharp from Leeds United would prove to be one of their most inspired pieces of business. Adkins, who had previously worked with Sharp at Scunthorpe in 2007, knew the goalscoring exploits of the English journeyman embarking on his second stint at Sheffield United.

In truth, Wilder’s start at Sheffield United was slow, he failed to have the desired instant impact on the team as the club failed to register a win in their first four League One matches. Predominantly playing the bold 4-4-2 formation in their opening games, Wilder failed to adapt to the squad at his disposal. But the away game against Gillingham at the beginning of September would be where Wilder’s 5-3-2 renaissance would begin. A 90th minute penalty dispatched by Billy Sharp is the game which sparked the dominance in this pioneering system all Championship teams are accustomed to seeing. The Blades went onto cruise through League One using this system and accumulating 100 points in the process.

Setting Sheffield United up in the pioneering 5-3-2 formation, Wilder blends innovation with old-school and the league position suggests Wilder has unlocked the key to success in the Championship. He deploys wing backs that act like wingers who move up and down the flanks. The two outside centre halves are given license to join the attacks, bringing the ball out from defence and overlapping as a decoy on the outside of the wing back. A fast-paced, inter-changeable and high demanding style which gets his team on the front foot.

Although, teams know how United are going to play, stopping their destructive and imposing style proves a handful for other Championship teams. Their style is unorthodox, yet conforms to the modern games tactical emphasis – pushing the wing backs high up the pitch and utilising ball playing centre halves. Jack O’Connell is a prime example of a player who concurs into this system. A young centre halve with a ball playing ability and technical prowess. He has been likened to Sheffield’s own England starlet and Leicester City asset Harry Maguire, who came through the Blades academy.

Entering the final third of the season, the Blades currently sit in second place after a 4-0 thumping at the hands of struggling Reading. However, Chris Wilder’s men are still yet to play Leeds at Elland Road in what should be a fascinating clash between two of the leagues finest teams – quite possibly a promotion decider?

The heights Sheffield United are reaching this season isn’t too dissimilar to the plaudits they earned last season in Wilder’s debuting Championship season. The South Yorkshire club executed the 5-3-2 formation and found themselves within surprising promotion contention heading into the Christmas period. Despite their promising start, a poor run of results saw their form tailor off from January onwards and narrowly missed out on the play-offs come May.

It seemed the Blades lacked that creative spark from midfield and the ability to alternate their squad when the injuries inevitably occur. Wilder opened up the cheque book and brought in midfield pivot Oliver Norwood from promoted Fulham. Norwood played a key role in helping the Cottagers rise from mid-table mediocrity in December, to Championship high-flyers come the tail end of the season. Norwood has been the mister consistent in the Blades impressive promotion challenging team; the midfield general is the man who ignites the attacks and can dictate the flow of game with his range of passing; short and long. Norwood’s eye for a pass is a distinguishable attribute in Wilder’s system, he is the calming influence on the team next to no nonsense midfielder John Fleck who thrives off a full-blooded challenge. The perfect balance which allows Mark Duffy to sprinkle his creative juices in behind the Blades potent attacking line.

In a team where the Blades manager poses master talisman and goalscoring predator; Billy Sharp. The football league’s record goalscorer for the past decade is still one of the finest centre forwards yet to play in English footballs top division. It’s surprising that someone with an impressive plethora of goals to game ratio at every club he’s been at, hasn’t been given a shot at Premier League football. He may get a chance playing at England’s top level with his current team. The Blades captain is currently second on the championship top scorers list only to Norwich City’s Finnish dynamo, Temmu Pukki.

Although, the Blades have predominantly had success using this formation, the style does have its downfalls. In a recent match, United bottled a three goal lead in 8 minutes to draw against Aston Villa after looking comfortable for the majority of the game. A disappointing result for a side who were hoping to go top at the time. When the system works, you receive the benefits of an entertaining, attacking side who focus on delivering the ball to Billy Sharp who has an abundance of finishing traits. But when the style fails, the defensive line can be caught by trying to play out from the back and a failure to see out a game, gives the losing team confidence to keep attacking in numbers. Villa looked bare average at best, but the Blades inability to waste time in the dying embers of a game, could quite possibly be a weakness targeted by teams going forward. Saying that, it was probably just a freak championship game you get every once in a while. Only Middlesborough have kept more clean sheets than Sheffield United this season which is an impressive record married with their imposing goalscoring exploits.

How ever this season concludes; automatic promotion, play off glory or defeat. Chris Wilder’s men are certainly a force to be reckoned with in the Championship and even a failure to succeed this season would still be a season of overachievement. Although, promotion to the top division isn’t a given, I think it’s only a matter of time before Chris Wilder’s men are going to be dabbling with the heights of Premier League football.

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