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Talking Tactics: Stoke City (H) - Direct Approach Pays Dividends For Sunderland

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Steven Fletcher scored twice as Sunderland recorded their first win of the season with a 3-1 victory over Stoke City at the Stadium of Light

Alex Livesey

Line Up

Gus Poyet made two changes to the side that drew 0-0 at home to Swansea City last weekend. Veteran defender Wes Brown was fit again after shaking off a calf problem, but could only manage a place amongst the substitutes leaving Santiago Vergini to continue alongside John O’Shea at the heart of the Sunderland defence.

Jordi Gomez was handed his first Premier League start under Poyet taking the place of Jack Rodwell in centre midfield, who like Wes Brown had to settle for a place on the bench.

Adam Johnson was missing from the side to the surprise of many, as Steven Fletcher returned to first team duty after a short exile to lead the line for the Black Cats. Connor Wickham dropped back to the left-hand side of midfield to fill the position vacated by Johnson.

Emanuele Giaccherini is still absent with an ankle problem.

Sunderland lined up as usual with Poyet’s favoured 4-1-4-1 formation.

Opposition

Mark Hughes was forced to make one change to the side that claimed victory over Newcastle United last Monday. Summer signing Mame Biram Diouf has made a strong start to his career at The Potters, but was unavailable for the trip to the Stadium of Light after sustaining a hamstring injury.

Marko Arnautovic was drafted in to replace the absent Senegalese forward.

Stoke spent big in the summer transfer window, and are showing signs of maturing under Hughes who is gradually moulding the side into a dynamic attacking outfit as oppose to the physical, long-ball approach we had become used to under Tony Pulis.

Stoke lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with the imposing 6"7 figure of Peter Crouch leading the line.

safc v stoke

Approach

Sunderland were by far the better side against Swansea last Saturday, and were only one finishing touch away from a faultless performance and their first three points of the season.

There was plenty for Poyet to be upbeat about performance wise, but there’s no doubt that the Uruguayan will have had his side working on their conviction in front of goal in training leading up to the visit of Stoke.

The Black Cats have a tough pair of Premier League fixtures approaching away to Southampton and at home to Arsenal, so a victory over Stoke would go a long way to giving Poyet’s men a much needed lift and provide a cushion between themselves and the bottom three.

Execution

Sunderland started extremely positively, almost just as they had ended the game against Swansea last weekend. The Black Cats were on the front foot and looked eager to take control of the game early on. In the fourth minute Sunderland’s positivity was rewarded, as Connor Wickham headed home a well delivered cross from Steven Fletcher.

Poyet’s men were ahead in a league game for the first time since the opening weekend of the season, but much to my disappointment, the players reacted by lowering the tempo and settling into a more conservative approach almost welcoming Stoke to plot their reply. Eventually, Stoke did reply, capitalising on a lapse in concentration from Sunderland defensively. A quickly taken free-kick inside their own half caught the Black Cats out of shape. Larsson was missing to cover in midfield, and Lee Cattermole made the wrong decision coming out of position to attempt and fail to dispossess Victor Moses leaving Charlie Adam free to receive and carry the ball into the penalty area to finish low across the face of Vito Mannone.

Much to the credit of Sunderland, they reacted well, like they have done on several occasions already this season when coming from behind to claim a result. The effective utilisation of attacking set-plays has been one of the most visible improvements in Sunderland’s game since Gus Poyet took charge just over a year ago, and it was thanks to an inventive and thought-out approach that the Black Cats regained the lead. A quick short corner from Larsson to Gomez allowed the Spaniard a better angle for a cross, and the returning Steven Fletcher scored his first goal of 2014 with a well-taken and precise header.

Again, after going ahead I feel Sunderland perhaps took their foot off the gas a little too much and may have ended up allowing Stoke to draw level again if not for a few near misses. However, in the 79th minute the Black Cats eventually did put the game to bed, and it was Fletcher again with the goal. A counter-attack caught Stoke over-committed at the other end of the field, and a cross from Wickham after a mazy run went through Rodwell to Fletcher who finished high into the empty net.

Confidence is a huge thing in football, and Fletcher will no doubt now be brimming with it after netting a brace and providing an assist. In fact, there was a marked improvement in the 27-year-old’s all round game. Fletcher held up the ball a lot better than he has done in recent weeks, and he managed to win half of his aerial duels against what is still a physical Stoke side – but he must follow this performance up some consistency.

Fletcher distribution

Fletcher aerial

One aspect of Sunderland’s game that has become noticeable this season and was again apparent on Saturday is the slight change in ethos. When Poyet took charge, the Black Cats became renowned for their ultimate possession play, but this doesn’t seem to be quite the case anymore – especially in comparison to last season. It appears that Poyet has now begun to deploy a more direct approach in the transition between defence and attack, and a good way of visualising this progression is by looking at the distribution of Vito Mannone.

mannone distribution

Last season under Poyet around 90% of goal-kicks were played short. The two centre-backs would split and take up a position at each corner of the penalty area pushing the two full-backs further forward widening the play, while the sitting midfielder would come short to make an option. Now, as displayed in the visual above, Poyet appears to be giving instructions to play a lot more direct from the goalkeeper, rather than have his side nurture possession. There could be a number of reasons for this change. It could be that Poyet now feels his current squad are more equipped with playing through the team a lot quicker, or it could be that the Sunderland manager considers the previous approach too risky defensively. In my opinion the approach last season was most effective when Ki Sung-Yung was operating as the deepest midfielder, so it may be that with the Korean now gone Poyet feels he no longer has a player within his midfield who is comfortable enough on the ball to utilise this particular tactic.

Conclusion

A good win at the perfect time. Sunderland have by no means been bad in the opening seven games of the season, and with this victory now sit in a place in the table which reflects their performances so far. I do feel that Stoke could have punished the Black Cats on occasions, and perhaps Poyet's men were let off at times dues to Mark Hughes' reluctance to give up on utilising Steven N'Zonzi as an advanced midfield player. The 25-year-old Frenchman really was dreadful on Saturday, and a more accomplished attacking player may have made Sunderland pay in some of the positions N'Zonzi found himself in.

Poyet's controversial starting XI was more than justified by the eventual outcome. It appears the Uruguayan values the presence of impact from the bench, and it could be that he dropped both Johnson and Rodwell purely for that reason in the absence of Giaccherini and Alvarez.

Notable performances from Wickham and Fletcher, and Sunderland seem a lot more balanced with Patrick Van Aanholt and Billy Jones occupying the full-back positions.

Hopefully this win will instil some confidence into the players ahead of two tricky fixtures away at Southampton and at home to Arsenal, but it's a shame that they now have to endure an international break which will no doubt suck the momentum out of the side.