With 1 win in 11 games, these Talking Tactics articles are becoming a bit of a chore again! But, alas, here we are back again to sift through the events at Craven Cottage with our analytical eye.
After weeks of teasing opportunities for the fringe players, Martin O'Neill finally delivered a shock call-up to the starting line-up as Ji Dong-won was asked to lead the line with midweek injury-victim Nicklas Bendtner only deemed fit enough to take a place on the bench. Elsewhere, there was a recall for Craig Gardner in midfield, whilst Simon Mignolet's return in goal surely signals the end of Craig Gordon's Sunderland career.
Fulham Midfield Dynamism
On paper, the two sides looked to have lined up quite similarly. Stephane Sessegnon and Moussa Dembele were deployed off a main forward and looked to find pockets of space in front of the opposition's defence in which to influence the game.
On the day, however, it was Fulham who played the system with far greater dynamism. As seen in the graphic below, the movement of Clint Dempsey caused serious problems for the Sunderland midfield. He frequently made incisive runs infield from his starting position on the left-hand flank, often forcing Cattermole or Colback to track him away from the ball which vacated space for Dembele to exploit.
On the other flank, Damien Duff was enjoying a fruitful afternoon against Phil Bardsley, who appeared to be the only Premier League full back who doesn't know that Duff is left-footed. In theory, Bardsley, as a right-footed left back, was well-equipped to deal with the threat of a player repeatedly cutting inside and attacking his stronger side, but it was a contest that Duff won hands-down. The Irishman was allowed to fire a match-high 7 crosses into the Sunderland box - a staggering 47% of Fulham's total crosses - and helped himself to 5 shots on goal too.
Square Pegs, Round Holes
Craig Gardner returned to the side following suspension but found himself unable to displace Lee Cattermole or Jack Colback in the middle. That meant he lined up on the right, and it was never likely that he would provide much width and shape. It would be disingenuous to hold that against him, of course. He is no more capable of providing natural touchline hugging width than Kevin Ball was of providing natural flair and creativity.
It did provide for an interesting tactical variation, however, as the Sunderland shape often more closely resembled a 4-3-3 than the 4-4-1-1 to which we have grown accustomed. Gardner tucked inside to add another man to the middle and Sessegnon often drifted out to the right of what became a front three of himself, Ji, and McClean. This confusion down the right hand side may well have played a very large part in ascertaining who's responsibility it was to track the Demspey runs we mentioned earlier.
Familiar Old Failings Provide Road-Map For Summer Spend
Despite all this, however, this was a game lost in familiar fashion. No less than SIX of Sunderland's starting line-up enjoyed a pass success rate of greater than 90%. Looking after the ball, creating opportunities, and enjoying good possession were not any kind of a problem. That much alone is greatly reassuring as it displays a solid existing platform upon which the summer transfer plans can be built.
Chances were simply not taken, with substitutes Fraizer Campbell and Nicklas Bendtner failing to even hit the target with clear opportunities. Additionally, however, only Stephane Sessegnon from the starting line-up managed to go past an opponent with the ball at his feet. It was an afternoon that the lack of attacking incision in the Sunderland side was very much highlighted.
It was generally a familiar story from a Sunderland point of view. Some good possession, some nice passing, and always in contention to take something from the game, but just lacking enough at the sharp end of the field to turn close games into points. Expect strikers and players able to inject a little pace into attacks to be dominating Martin O'Neill's summer wish list.