Wolves were the visitors to the Stadium Of Light last weekend for a game that looked all the world like a home-banker. But whilst we saw them as less predator and more prey, the cigars were seemingly out and minds on the beach. A second successive goalless home draw was... well I was going to say 'enjoyed', but lets go with 'endured'.
You want to delve a bit deeper? Hang on, really?! Curse you. Curse you all! That means I have to, too. Ha'way then. Lets get this over with.
There were few surprises on the Sunderland teamsheet as Martin O'Neill once again showed great consistency in selection. There was a return at left back for Kieran Richardson, meaning Jack Colback stepped back into central midfield to deputise for the injured Lee Cattermole. John O'Shea was once again absent, but Nicklas Bendtner was fit to allow a return to the now-familiar 4-4-1-1 system that has been favoured this season. David Vaughan was the man to drop out of midfield.
Wolves sprung a surprise by preferring Anthony Forde to Matt Jarvis on the left wing. Meanwhile, it was Christophe Berra and not Roger Johnson who replaced the suspended Sebastien Bassong in defence. Regular scourge of Sunderland Steven Fletcher replaced David Edwards in the line-up, but in a slightly deeper role than you would perhaps expect, allowing the visitors to pack the midfield area.
Double negative, few positives
We said on the podcast last week that this was a game in which Sunderland really needed to assert themselves, but it never really happened. In truth, the team was set up in much the same way as it was against Spurs and Everton the week before, and just about every week before that under Martin O'Neill – a deep defensive line, stand-offish in opposition territory, and always looking to counter-attack. Whether the opposition is a Champions League chasing side or one rooted to the foot of the division, it appears that this is just the Sunderland way for now.
Wolves, however, had little intention of conceding much space for any pesky counter-attacks. They flooded the middle of the pitch with bodies and produced a very disciplined performance.
This was definitely one time when two negatives failed to provide a positive, as neither side had enough invention to really draw the other out.
Strangling the supply at the source
As we have mentioned, the emphasis was very much on Sunderland in this one, so why were they so ineffective in troubling their relegation-haunted visitors? Well the answer is that they simply weren't allowed to settle enough on the ball in defensive areas to really build a head of steam in the game.
As seen by the above diagram, the wide players for Wolves tucked in to pressure the Sunderland centre backs when in possession and deny them an easy pass to the full-backs, whilst their central midfield players could deny a pass into the middle of the pitch.
It was a simple tactic, and you could certainly make a case that Sunderland should not have been so perplexed by it, but it was effective on the day. The centre backs saw plenty of the ball, but failed to find their team mates with it with the kind of regularity required to build pressure. Michael Turner completed just 69% of his attempted passes (down from a 75% rate on the season), whilst Matthew Kilgallon really struggled with a meagre 61% (down from a 71% rate on the season).
The overall effect of this is perhaps best illustrated by Nicklas Bendtner's position. The Dane is often criticised for his propensity to wander, but it is rare that we have seen him so deep that both Stephane Sessegnon and James McClean are ahead of him more often than not. A lack of quality possession moving through midfield meant Bendtner came deeper and deeper searching for it, and in the process just clogged up the midfield area even more.
Right side, wrong delivery
In recent weeks, teams doubling up on James McClean on the left wing has become a familiar site at the Stadium of Light. But Wolves' game-plan to press higher up the pitch and the presence of Kieran Richardson's natural attacking instincts made assigning extra men to stifle McClean a luxury they could not afford.
Their central midfield pairing, however, can be seen creeping across the pitch in an attempt to crowd that side of the field and give the young Irishman nowhere to go. The effectiveness of that plan is not the key issue, however. It is the effect if had on the other side of the pitch which is interesting.
With Wolves committed elsewhere, the right hand side really opened up for Sunderland. Phil Bardsley, to use as an example, was afforded the time and space to send 6 crosses into the box and two shots on goal – both figures being more than double his average per game on the season (Bardsley is used here as an example due to there being no risk of his figures being influenced by set-pieces). He was, however, wasteful with them, and Sebastian Larsson fared no better. In fact, between the two, just 4 deliveries into the box from 19 attempts found a target.
Sunderland's form has been sufficiently good under Martin O'Neill to prompt teams to come to the Stadium of Light genuinely worried about being beaten. That in itself is a huge leap forward given how far home form had deteriorated under Steve Bruce. It seems apparent, though, that the Sunderland squad is not quite good enough yet to really threaten to break down a defensive and disciplined system.
It's definitely better than losing at home every week, but a very interesting summer awaits with O'Neill surely looking to target players who can bring a little more pace and unpredictability to the Sunderland ranks.