Paul Heckingbottom has switched Sheffield United to playing three defenders in a 1-3-4-3 starting formation with one striker this season, although against selected rivals he does not hesitate to change to a formation using two strikers 1-3-4-1-2.
Immediately after losing the ball his team begins to play high pressing with an active role of the offensive three pressing the defenders and not allowing the opponent to playmake the ball easy. The highly positioned second line cuts off the passing options behind their backs by short marking and induces the opponent to play bypassing the second line. In this set-up of The Blades taking the risk of high pressure is obvious as the wing-backs are positioned very high and the back three, although positioned wide, are unable to prevent all direct balls played to the wings, hence the constant attempts to set offside traps. In doing so, it should be noted that the defensive trio (Basham, Egan, Robinson) are rarely rotated (Ben Davies) showing good form throughout the season and forming a solid and well-coordinated defensive block.
If pressing in the first phase after losing the ball fails, the team sets deeper, but does so in an organised manner moving zones as the rival action unfolds. Team structured play is a hallmark of Heckingbottom’s style, which limits the freedom of individual players in favour of good organisation and collective high pressing.
He prefers fast-tempo play and high mobility of players on all lines. Heckingbottom places high fitness demands on his players and expects an aggressive attitude both on and off the ball.
On the ball the team’s play varies from using wide passing channels on the wings in combination play with high-flying wing-backs, to penetrating the defence with direct balls through the center to midfielders running into the penalty area, to the more traditional widening of the area and overlaps with the task of crossing into the box. Ability to drastically change both the formation and the roles of individual players from game to game makes Sheffield Utd. more difficult for their rivals to read.
The key figure in the offensive is the striker (36 year old Billy Sharp) who does not impress with dribbling or speed, but in his role as a classic “nine” has the ability to find free spaces which with his very high positioning provides him with a large number of contacts with the ball in the box.
This gives the team plenty of opportunities in every game also because behind the forwards they have a very mobile and offensively-minded midfielder (Gibbs-White) who not only makes plenty of progressive key passes, but also provides vertical entries into the penalty area.