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Talking Tactics: Leicester City (A) - Sunderland Getting There

Steven Fletcher went close for Sunderland as the Black Cats were held to a 0-0 draw at the King Power Stadium.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Line Up

Gus Poyet made only one change to the side that drew 1-1 with Everton prior to the international break with Lee Cattermole returning from a one-match ban to replace Liam Bridcutt at the base of midfield.

Costel Pantilimon remained the number one choice in goal after impressing in recent weeks, and the in-form Steven Fletcher again led the line for the Black Cats.

Sebastian Coates was ruled fit enough to feature among the Sunderland substitutes after recovering from a thigh injury.

Sunderland lined up in their usual 4-1-4-1 formation.

Opposition

Nigel Pearson made two changes to the side defeated 2-0 by Southampton in their last Premier League fixture. Paul Konchesky and Riyad Maherez replaced Andy King and Danny Drinkwater, with the Leicester City manager choosing to alter his shape ahead of the visit of Sunderland.

The Foxes ditched the narrow 4-3-3 system of previous weeks in favour of a more conventional 4-4-2 formation, which featured two wide offensive wingers and two sitting midfielders.

Pearson’s side had been riding high in September following a 5-3 win over Manchester United, but have since picked up only one point in a six-game run which has seen them beaten five times.

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Approach

Sunderland entered the international break on the back of two good results against Crystal Palace and Everton, and seemed to have turned a corner lifting themselves out of the relegation zone.

Leicester City are a team in bad form, but by no means did that mean that Sunderland were considered favourites for the tie and Poyet himself shunned this notion in midweek. Speaking ahead of the game, the Uruguayan stated that there was ‘no difference between Leicester and the rest of the bottom 10’.

There’s no doubt however that Nigel Pearson will have had this fixture earmarked as a chance for his side to get back to winning ways, and it was vital that Sunderland approached the game in a professional manner ensuring that they put their greater Premier League experience to good use.

Execution

Leicester started the better of the two sides, and in the opening ten minutes Sunderland were forced to remain retreated in their own half in order to soak up the pressure. It became clear early on that the Foxes were keen to exploit the wide areas and ask questions of Sunderland’s full-backs, and Pearson’s decision to revert to a 4-4-2 system before the game was probably motivated by the want to deploy this particular approach. The Black Cats however defended well and quickly adjusted to grow into the game, and from then on dominated possession and controlled much of the play over the 90 minutes.

Steven Fletcher squandered what was probably the best chance of the match midway through the first half. The 27-year-old was slipped in by Adam Johnson and had most of the goal to aim at from close range, but was thwarted by the advancing Kasper Schmeichel.

Fletcher himself had a decent game, but as a lone striker isn’t helped by the aesthetics of the current system. On too many occasions on Saturday Fletcher was having to come deep to receive the ball in order to link up with the Sunderland midfield. This is fine, but, it’s absolutely vital that there are players willing to get beyond the striker on these occasions and ultimately advance the team up the field into a more threatening position. This isn’t necessarily a fault in the system, or indeed the tactics, the problem is that Poyet doesn’t currently have the kind of attack-minded players at his disposal capable of taking advantage of such a situation. The current absence of competent overlapping full-backs was noticeable on the day, and Jordi Gomez – who had played well in recent weeks – had a poor game and failed to pose the offensive threat he did against Crystal Palace and Everton.

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Obviously with the likes of Emanuele Giaccherini and Ricky Alverez missing it’s understandable that Sunderland may look a little tame going forward at present, but it really has been far too easy this season for opposing teams to defend against Poyet’s side, and it’s an issue that requires attention if Sunderland are to push on and achieve a safe mid-table finish.

With the game finishing 0-0, I’m going to cease the opportunity to focus some attention on set-pieces as well as the emergence of Costel Pantilimon as the new number one.

Since Poyet took charge at the Stadium of Light just over a year ago Sunderland have in my opinion appeared a great deal more organised in set piece situations - especially attacking. On Saturday however, the Black Cats weren't quite at the races in this department and in fact were extremely wasteful. In a game where one well-drilled set piece maneuver could have meant the difference between a win and a draw, it was disappointing to see the Black Cats make a number of poor decisions from both corners and free-kicks, and it was also disappointing to see such a string of poor deliveries from Sebastian Larsson.

From a defensive perspective, I think it's fair to say that one of Sunderland's vulnerable areas over recent years has been opposition free-kicks and corners. While Poyet has made some improvement in this department, it has continued to be a problem - until perhaps now. While I'm a huge fan of Vito Mannone and reluctantly admitted he needed a break from the team, the presence of Costel Pantilimon in the Sunderland goal has left the side looking a lot more assured when defending set pieces. The Romanian has only started three Premier League games for the Black Cats, but in each has looked commanding and confident in defensive dead-ball situations, and as a result players around him appear to be handling these passages of play a lot better.

In fact, I'm very optimistic with Pantilimon in general. The imposing goalkeeper seems an accomplished shot-stopper as well as being difficult to beat in one-on-one situations, and his introduction to the team appears to have sured up what has been of late a shaky back-line. The importance of a good goalkeeper can not go underestimated,  and I think although Sunderland controlled much of the possession and created the best chance of the game, it was actually Pantilimon who deserves a great deal of credit and he perhaps even won the Black Cats a draw. On numerous occasions Leicester carved out decent goal-scoring opportunities when hitting Poyet's side on the break, and on another day that could have been a frustrating defeat - and I think a lot of Sunderland fans will agree with me on that.

Conclusion

All in all a respectable away point for the Black Cats. Injuries are having a huge influence on the aesthetics of the team at the moment, so the fact that the side have now gone three straight league games without defeat deserves to be recognised. It also shouldn't go unnoticed that the side have responded quickly to put both the Southampton and Arsenal results firmly behind them.

There's work still to be done, but I have confidence that Poyet is getting there gradually. With 13 points from 12 games Sunderland are 14th in the table and statistically on course to reach the 40 point mark before the season is over, so depending on your expectations, things could be a lot worse.

Not a bad way to head into a home tie against the league leaders next Saturday.