The Blades Revolution is a series of articles discussing Sheffield United and their 3-5-2 formation, in Football Manager 2023. This first one is just a little introduction to the series and what to expect.
I don’t think I’m sensationalising things here when I say Chris Wilder is the best manager we’ve had in my lifetime. It wasn’t flawless though and there were some flaws. But if it wasn’t for Chris, I’m not sure we’d be where we are now. He gave the lifeless club a new lease of life and more importantly, a real club identity.
Chris Wilder’s time at Sheffield United might have ended some years ago now, but the foundations he’s laid are still being used by the club today. Paul Heckingbottom has carried on Wilder’s legacy and put his own twist on them. And controversially (perhaps?) does some stuff better than Chris. But without Chris, there is no Paul.
Here I’ll recreate elements of both styles and implement this in my own way, in Football Manager 2023. While sticking closely to the key principles of both managers.
All of these will be separate articles that have a specific focus to them. Most of these will have several articles to them, like the Meet the players and the 3-5-2 Versus sections. Meet the players will take a look at the individuals I use for the positions and show you how I use an alternative approach to most.
While the 3-5-2 Versus section will discuss in-depth how the formation plays against different shapes we come across. Talking about our own strengths and weaknesses against them and what we can do to limit our vulnerabilities. While also focusing on how we can make the most of our strengths.
- Overlapping Centrebacks
- Playmaking Wingbacks
- Meet the players
- 3-5-2 Versus
The Blades Revolution – Playing style and Characteristics
Overlapping Centre-Backs: Sheffield United’s back three often includes overlapping centre-backs, providing extra width and support to the attack.
We mainly play a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 formation depending on how you want to define the actual shape. But the shape we use isn’t actually important, it’s what we do during the game that is crucial and not how we line up in text format on the team sheet.
One of the key features of Wilder’s 3-5-2 formation was the overlapping runs of the centre-backs, which provide extra width and support to the attack. The wing-backs also play an important role in the team’s attacking play, providing crosses into the box, cutbacks, passing options and stretching the opposition’s defence.
Fans of other teams always think they’ve seen this with other sides or their own. But they haven’t seen anything like the Sheffield United centre-backs overlapping. It does not just overlap they do, but they frequently get inside the opposition’s 18 and 6-yard box. You’d be mistaken for thinking they were strikers at times with the deep positions they take up regularly. It’s not just on occasions this happens, it’s a frequent occurrence. They can often be seen overlapping, providing runners, crossing from deep and finishing off team moves deep inside the box time and time again.
It’s still one of the main staples of our play under Hecky too. Who utilises Anel Ahmedhodžić in the role.
In the 3-5-2 formation, the centre-backs often step out of the backline to provide width and support in attack. This is achieved by both wide centre-backs pushing up the field, while the other holds their positions in the back.
The overlapping centre-back provides an extra attacking option for the team, helping to create numerical advantages and stretching the opposition’s defence. This can open up space for the team’s wing-backs to make runs down the flanks, and for the forwards to make runs into the box.
In addition, the overlapping centre-back also provides extra defensive support when the team loses possession. By moving up the field, they can help to pressure the opposition and win the ball back higher up the pitch.
Wing-Backs as Playmakers: The team’s wing-backs play a crucial role in creating opportunities going forward, providing crosses into the box and supporting the attack
Our wingbacks play like traditional wingers and are part of the reason our centre-backs overlap as often as they do. They all link together brilliantly in the opposition’s final third, to create overloads.
Strong Team Spirit: The team is known for its strong team spirit and togetherness, with players playing for each other and working hard for the collective cause.
We favoured high-working players with exceptional teamwork over creativity. We didn’t really have that much flair or creativity on the side. Instead, we worked hard and the players all have defined roles and expectations within the tactical framework.
There is more to the key characteristics of the Blades side during this era but these were the most important and the ones the tactical framework will be based on. We will explore others as the series progresses though.
3-5-2 General Overview
Let us start with a general overview of the 3-5-2 formation so we know the pros and cons.
- One of the main selling points of the 3-5-2 is the use of two strikers.
- Wingbacks provide width.
- Three central midfielders allow you to match most opponents in the centre of midfield.
- Quick transitions going forward
- Commits numbers forward with an aggressive midfielder and both wingbacks venture forward frequently.
- Good support from the central areas and wide areas.
- The centre-backs can get dragged wide if the wingbacks are out of position or don’t deal with danger.
- Wingbacks can be exposed and doubled up on at times.
- Centre Backs can be wasted against one-man striker formations.
That is the basics of the 3-5-2 in general terms. But it changes even more when you factor in the team instructions, player instructions, players, player traits, roles and duties.
I could have quite easily gone with an attacking midfielder pushed instead of one of the central midfielders. But I felt this would then have become too similar to the Ibis stuff I’ve done;
So we went for this instead;
As this is just an introduction, I don’t want to go tactic-heavy just yet. I want to keep it all brief, as things aren’t quite as they seem. By that, I mean the ideas behind the players playing these roles and the tasks they do, are quite complex. That’s why we have individual articles for them planned. Some roles have many individual instructions against certain types of formations. We changed things up and adapt based on the shape we are playing. That’s why it is very complex and needs context adding.
But this is the basis of what we are doing. It looks straightforward enough right?
What might be surprising is that even though we play a 3-5-2 formation and are very strong in the midfield, our play actually happened in the wide areas. We had less than 20% of the ball in central areas, while the wide areas made up 80% of our play. This is why overlapping centrebacks and creative wingbacks are crucial to our play.
While we did use an aggressive press, this wasn’t a high press, this was done in a midblock. We were happy to concede possession into our own half and then we’d press aggressively to win the ball back.
Wilder – The Players
Goalkeeper – Dean Henderson was an excellent shot-stopper, with quick reflexes and good positioning. He wasn’t the best player with the ball at his feet though and was also prone to having a lapse in concentration. He perhaps (early on in his Blades career) didn’t come off his line as much as he should do or command his area. But we’ll start with a sweeper keeper role and work from that.
RWB – As a wing-back, Baldock was responsible for making runs up and down the right flank, overlapping/underlapping with the right-sided centre-back and providing crosses into the box. Perhaps not the most prolific player we had. But his pace, work rate and dribbling always meant he was a danger and could make something happen. Even if his final ball wasn’t always the best.
However, Baldock’s role was not just limited to attack. He was also formidable for defending the right flank and tracking back to help out his team in defence. He is a tenacious defender, who is not afraid to make tackles and interceptions and was always willing to put his body on the line for the team.
LWB – Enda Steven’s was similar to Baldock’s but perhaps more attack-minded when he had the ball. But he couldn’t defend as well as George can in my opinion. But was still a threat and more than solid enough. This is why we went for a support role here. That likely sounds contradictory but let me try to explain.
By using a support duty he should be encouraged more to be involved with the build-up and allow him to be more attacking due to his initial positioning on the pitch. Most of our good play under Wilder happened on the left side. Or the majority of our scoring opportunities came from the left side of the pitch.
We seemed to overload the left side more due to how we were set up. The right side of the pitch was our more aggressive side though, due to Baldock’s pace and Basham’s overlapping.
WCB (Left side) – Jack O’Connell is an excellent ball-playing centre-back, comfortable with the ball at his feet, and was tasked with starting attacks from the back.
O’Connell’s left-sided position in the back three allowed him to push forward and overlap with Enda Stevens on the left flank. This provided an additional attacking outlet for the team and helped to stretch the opposition’s defence.
O’Connell was also an excellent communicator and leader on the pitch. He was constantly organizing his teammates, providing guidance and instructions to help them maintain their shape and focus throughout the game.
WCB (Right side) – Chris Basham was very much the same as Jack above. But possibly more aggressive in his directness. Opposition fans used to laugh when they’d see him launch a 40-yard run and take on several people in the process before having a shot inside the box.
Basham lacked pace and people often saw him as being limited. But any Sheffield United fan will tell you that it wasn’t unusual to see him pop up in important areas or take people on. He earned the nickname Bashambauer for a reason!
CB – John Egan’s role in the side is what allowed the other defenders to push forward. They knew he’d keep his position and clean up any balls over the top. Very rarely would he venture forward outside of set pieces.
MC (Central) – Norwood is an excellent passer of the ball and his ability to dictate the tempo of the game was a key feature of Sheffield United’s style of play. He was comfortable dropping off and collecting the ball from the defence.
While dictating the pace of the game he is also capable of switching play to either flank. Not only that but he can also do pinpoint 40 + yard passes too. Norwood really is the heartbeat of the team.
MCL – I mean no disrespect when I say this but Fleck is a horrible midfielder. By that, I mean he’s like a little Yorkshire Terrier snapping at your heels constantly when pressing or breaking play up in general. But he is much more than that too. It’s not unusual to see him drive forward with the ball at his feet or pass the ball like he’s a playmaker. He’s a proper box-to-box player.
MCR – For this role, I’ve based it on Mark Duffy rather than Lundstram. The reason for this is, Duffy was one of the attacking heartbeats of the side in our promotion season.
Through ball, quick switches of play, dribbling, darting runs, he had it all. So it probably seems a bit weird why I didn’t give this position a playmaker role in the tactic. The reason for this is I don’t think that would have done justice to what he actually did for us. He was a goal threat as well as a playmaker.
Using the Mezzala role allows the player’s attributes to dictate how creative he is. This should allow the right player to get lots of assists and goals rather than just focusing on one of them.
SCR – David McGoldrick (Didzy) wow where to begin here? Unless you are a Sheffield United fan (or Derby currently) then I don’t think you’ll understand just how good he was and vital to the system. A really flashy player on his day who has amazing technical ability. If it wasn’t for injuries I suspect he’d have played at a much higher level for a longer period of time.
McGoldrick’s work rate is amazing. He was often involved in the team’s pressing game, closing down opposition players and helping to win the ball back in the final third of the pitch.
He was a skilful player with excellent control and dribbling skills, and his ability to beat defenders. This allowed him to create space for himself and his teammates and was vital for the team’s style of play. If we scored a goal it was unusual if Didzy wasn’t in some way involved in it, at some stage.
SCL – Now a player that Blades fans love and all opposition fans absolutely hate. The legend, Billy Sharp. Give him the ball and he’ll score. It’s that simple. People think he’s a tap-in merchant but his play is a lot more than that too.
For a player who is quite small, he was brilliant in the air, often out-jumping or out-muscling his markers and leaving them behind. He has a really competitive stream to his game.
Now we have a rough idea of what I want or expect from the players I’ll be using. But there’s much more to it than that. In the next article, we’ll be focusing on the actual tactic and how it plays. We’ll be looking at the defence and talking about the wide centre-backs in great detail.
I’ll show examples of what they do and how I can adapt the behaviour to give us advantages against different types of players and formations. Along with a more general analysis too. As I think a lot of people have the wrong idea about the role or are unsure how to implement it.