Having succumbed to a miserable 0-2 defeat at Blackburn Rovers on Tuesday evening, Martin O'Neill was hoping for a reaction this weekend from his Sunderland side. Happily for the Irishman, that's exactly what he got. The Black Cats' 3-1 victory over QPR was never in doubt, with the home side controlling vast swathes of the game. Djibril Cisse's reckless sending off only made the task harder for the visitors and, despite Taye Taiwo's late free-kick finding the top corner, Sunderland comfortably took all three points.
The Wearsiders made three changes from that midweek loss, lining up in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1. Phil Bardsley missed out through injury, causing John O'Shea to return to the line-up at right-back. Seb Larsson, clearly tired at Ewood Park, was rested - Craig Gardner took up his position on the right of midfield, with Jack Colback returning in the middle. Meanwhile Fraizer Campbell was benched for the returning Stephane Sessegnon to sit either alongside or behind Nicklas Bendtner; though the recent English debutant was on the field within half an hour, as O'Shea hobbled off, causing Gardner to go full-back and Campbell to fill in on the right wing.
Mark Hughes' visiting side lined up in a very narrow, disjointed 4-3-3. Ex-Sunderland man Anton Ferdinand captained the side, starting at centre-back alongside another former red and white in Nedum Onuoha, and full-backs Luke Young and the aforementioned Taiwo. In a narrow midfield three were Adel Taarabt, Shaun Derry and Samba Diakité. Ahead of them, Bobby Zamora and Jamie Mackie partnered the slightly more advanced Cisse, who looked to play on the shoulder of Sunderland's defenders.
Positional Analysis - Wide vs Narrow
It is hard not to think visiting manager Mark Hughes made a massive error of judgment in setting his side up the way he did yesterday. Against a Sunderland side that has overwhelmingly relied on width in recent months, Hughes opted for a line-up devoid of wide midfielders.
As a result, QPR effectively forfeited a huge area of space for their opponents to run into. Sunderland's ball retention was - unlike Tuesday evening - excellent (8 of the eventual 14 players who took the field for the home side had a pass success rate of 80% or over), meaning the visitors' plan of plugging gaps in the middle was a pointless one. Sunderland simply ran the ball wide, where QPR's middle three were too far away from to cut off attacks.
Hughes' men's emphasis on trying to attack through the middle was staggering too. 43% of their attacks came through the middle, while only 18% came down their left side. This is strange, especially when considering the Sunderland line-up. John O'Shea, though an accomplished defender, is not an out-and-out full-back - nor was his positional replacement, Craig Gardner. Furthermore, with Fraizer Campbell eventually positioned in a wide role (when he is clearly better suited to play as a striker), QPR's reluctance to attack down Sunderland's right seems baffling.
On the contrary, where QPR attacked and played narrowly, Sunderland once again made the most of utilising the width of the pitch. James McClean put in a match-winning performance, and one wonders just how uneasily visiting right-back Luke Young will have slept on Saturday evening.
McClean provided an assist for the first goal, scored the second, and played in David Vaughan, who then crossed for Sessegnon to finish, for the third. The Irishman was roundly accepted as man of the match, and it was difficult to argue against that. He contributed a hefty 60% crossing success rate, 80% success in his overall passing and a total of five key passes (almost as many as the entire opposition managed). His game, week on week, is showing signs of variety. On Saturday he chose to go to the line sometimes, or simply whip the ball in instantly on other occasions - Young had a terrible time trying to combat him.
In past weeks, McClean has been the victim of "doubling up" tactics. This time, however, with QPR employing no man on the right side of midfield, Young was left to try and deal with the winger himself - in this individual battle, the young Irishman came out comprehensively on top.
Also, though it was McClean who stood out, Sunderland did not limit themselves to attacking through him. 38% of their attacks did come down the left, but the number down the right - 34% - was only just behind this. As the average position graph above shows, Craig Gardner was highly advanced even when playing at right-back, getting forward with Fraizer Campbell frequently.
All this resulted in nullifying Rangers' numerical advantage in central midfield. The disjointed nature of Mark Hughes' men was exploited brilliantly by Sunderland, and their win never looked in doubt.
Sunderland also shored up well on the defensive side of things on Saturday. Despite Taiwo's late free-kick, and the Black Cats noticeably easing up with twenty minutes remaining, the visitors rarely looked threatening.
The partnership of Kyrgiakos and Turner at the back started to bear some fruit. They looked solid and unphased throughout; even the pacey threat of Cisse seemed non-existent as the two held the line well, and his attempts to play on their shoulder came to nought prior to his sending off.
In the air, especially, they were dominant. The pairing won 9 aerial duels between them; the three-pronged QPR strikeforce won just one in comparison.
A comfortable victory for Sunderland, so much so that they could afford to ease up with twenty minutes remaining - no doubt with Tuesday's FA Cup replay firmly in everyone's thoughts.
Rare for Martin O'Neill, Sunderland actually dominated possession. In fact, this game was much like when another promoted side (Norwich) came to the Stadium of Light. Sunderland imposed themselves early, bided their time, and waited for the opposition to inevitably make mistakes. When they did, the Black Cats capitalised.