On Dec. 14, 2019, two days after Conservative Party Leader Boris Johnson had a resounding election victory for his “Get Brexit Done” platform, Sheffield United played Aston Villa in the English Premier League and won 2-0. The victory lifted Sheffield to fifth place in the Premier League and within shouting distance of a top-four spot and the accompanying berth in next year’s Champions League.
Coincidence? Don’t think so. See, Sheffield United has been labelled the Brexit team of the EPL, made up almost entirely of English players, plus two Scots, two Welshmen and four players from the island of Ireland. It’s not a label the club is entirely comfortable with, for obvious political reasons. You’ve got to please everyone, not a faction. But there’s truth in it, and Sheffield United might be the most interesting team in the English top flight.
The team keeps winning or seizing unlikely draws against top opposition, with goals scored by players you’ve never heard of, and employing tactics that are as original as the team looks ordinary on paper.
Those tactics aren’t revolutionary, but they are meant to optimize the impact of the talent on the field and put extreme pressure on the opposition.
Manager Chris Wilder uses a shifting 3-5-2 system that emphasizes overlapping centre backs, who move forward to cause disarray in the opposition’s midfield, create space in the middle and allow attacking centre forwards the space to approach the goalmouth. Essentially, it’s about fluidity that causes uncertainty in the opposing team’s defence – it’s hard to defend when it suddenly looks like there are three new attacking players.
The tactic has brought Sheffield studious attention in the all-soccer media in Italy and Spain, where tactical analysis is taken very seriously. And little wonder – Sheffield has won games this season with as little 30-per-cent possession of the ball. Further, Sheffield doesn’t rely on one or two top goal-scorers. John Fleck has five goals this season, Oli McBurnie has four and John Lundstram has three. None are household names outside of Sheffield. And there’s a long list of players who have scored one vital goal this season.
It all adds up to something less than a fairytale and more than a tale of journeymen players punching above their weight. Sheffield United was in the lower-division Championship last season and, after achieving promotion to the Premier League, was immediately picked by pundits as most likely to be relegated. “Plucky and lucky” was the upshot. Right now, going into an F.A. Cup weekend, when the club plays Milwall on Saturday, the team sits in eighth place, a mere one point behind fifth-placed Manchester United. A place in Europe next season, likely in the Europa League, is on the horizon.
That “Brexit team” label explains part of it all. Lacking ownership willing to spend a fortune on glamorous big-name players from Europe, Sheffield United uses team unity and togetherness as major motivators. Wilder talks often in interviews about “our identity as a team” and not losing the “identity” that got the team to this point. Replace the word “team” with “country” and then the phrase “our identity as a team” could come from any pro-Brexit politician in Britain. It’s all about homemade effort being more authentic and meaningful than whatever razzle-dazzle that clubs with armies of European stars can offer.
This isn’t exactly unique in soccer. In Spain, Athletic Bilboa has for decades mainly employed players born in the local Basque region or those who have learned their trade at other clubs from the Basque region. It currently sits in eighth place in La Liga. Athletic Bilboa has never been relegated from the top flight in Spain.
At a time when soccer is entirely global and the riches that accrue from TV rights compel teams to sign superstars from the best teams all over the world, there is something endearing about the small-scale, local team that operates with confidence and ingenuity at the top level.
The great irony of it all, especially that “Brexit team” label, is that while Johnson is steering Britain into turning its back on Europe, Sheffield United is aiming for a place in Europe and the glory that comes with that prestige. And so it might come to pass.