Chelsea heads towards the international break with a match against Sheffield United and their overlapping centerbacks. What does that even mean?
As Antonio Conte was winning the league with a revived back three, Sheffield United was doing the same in League One. Chris Wilder’s tactical innovations (if they can be called that) saw the Blades promoted twice in three years to reach the Premier League.
Sheffield United did not really start gaining attention till last season when many started using the term “overlapping centerbacks”. That at first appears like a silly tag used by overly intellectual tactics writers (ahem). The term still seems like a bit of a stretch after seeing it in practice, but it is not entirely misplaced either.
To understand what an overlapping centerback is, it is best to consider two individual concepts and then combine them. The first is inverted fullbacks, or in the case, wingbacks. The wingbacks tuck in rather than moving out and around their winger. This helps to focus possession centrally while allowing other players further up field to stretch the play.
The second concept is one Conte used. When the possession was high around the opponent’s box, Cesar Azpilicueta would often step up to join the midfield line of Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante to help bring the ball across the field. He would then return to the back three.
Now imagine the wingbacks tuck in and the centerbacks, rather than temporarily stepping into the midfield line, go all the way to the touch line in areas normally associated with overlapping fullbacks or wingbacks. Bam! Overlapping centerbacks.
If it seems a little crazy, that is because it is. But it worked well enough to shoot Sheffield United from League One to the Premier League in short order. So far, they seem to be sticking by the idea in the Premier League.
Defensively, they mostly avoid the 5-3-2 many expect from a 3-5-2 base shape. Instead, they use a Hoffenheim like pendulum where the nearest wingback presses completely and the remaining defenders slide over to form a back four.
They have much in common offensively with Hoffenheim as well. A ball will be sent into the strikers (or the overlapping centerback) who will then flick it back to a player facing the opposition goal. Quick combination play continues from there.
Overall, Sheffield United will feel like a more sophisticated Burnley side. They will be aggressive throughout and they will look to exploit opposition weakness in open play and set pieces. Frank Lampard will be familiar with the style as his Derby side split the results with the Blades.
Lampard will look for his front three to exploit the runs of the centerbacks. This could easily turn into another back and forth game and it will be imperative that Tammy Abraham get involved and brings Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic into the game. The back four and midfield will need to simply remain aware that every player is a danger of running in behind.
Sheffield United has proven to be an interesting side and one that will stick to their guns in the Premier League. Lampard will be familiar and will hope that this Chelsea side can figure out the Blades’ tricks more easily than the Rams did last year.