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Talking Tactics With Rory Fallow - SAFC v Chelsea

Saturday's victory over Chelsea was a stunning win for Sunderland in one of the greatest games the Stadium of Light has ever seen. Rory Fallow analyses the fixture that put Sunderland firmly back in the driving seat of the relegation battle.

Line Up

It's getting harder and harder to talking about Sunderland's starting line up, as Sam Allardyce keeps naming unchanged teams. Not that you can blame him mind, Vito Mannone is looking more and more confident in goal, whilst the centre half pairing of Lamine Kone and Younes Kaboul have been solid and dependable. Making up the rest of the back four were full backs DeAndre Yedlin and, playing against his former club, Patrick van Aanholt.

In a game where winning the midfield battle would be essential, Allardyce kept faith in the midfield three of Lee Cattermole, Jan Kirchhoff and Yann M'Vila. Up front were Sunderland's usual front three of Jermain Defoe, Wahbi Khazri and, also playing against his former club, Fabio Borini.

There was a change amongst the substitutes, however. A hip injury to Billy Jones saw him ruled out and, perhaps to give Sunderland more attacking options in reserve, Jeremain Lens took his place.


Guus Hiddink stuck to his word of not fielding a weakened team for Chelsea's visit to the Stadium of Light. The back four of John Terry, Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic remained unchanged from the side that drew 2-2 with Spurs on Monday night. There was a return in goal for Thibaut Courtois though, who replaced Asmir Begovic.

The only other Chelsea change came in the attacking positions, where Eden Hazard was preferred on the left wing to Pedro, who didn't even make the bench. On the opposite wing was Willian, one of Chelsea's more consistent performers this season and he'd be looking to provide service to the always threatening (in more ways than one) Diego Costa.

Rounding off the visitors starting XI was a midfield three of Nemanja Matic, John Obi Mikel and Cesc Fabregas, with Fabregas the more advanced of the trio.


Sunderland would need to take a similar approach to this game as the one they did against Arsenal a couple of weeks ago. Kirchhoff, Cattermole and M'Vila would need to work tirelessly off the ball to limit Chelsea's passing opportunities, whilst also making well timed tackles to break up their play. With Chelsea possessing wingers who like to cut inside, Sunderland would be looking to play quite narrow when in defence so they could close up all the available space in the middle. Sam Allardyce would be happy for his team to force Chelsea wide, confident that his defenders would be able to deal with crosses coming into the box, as hung up crosses would certainly be more comfortable to deal with ahead of Hazard and Willian running at the defence.

The three Sunderland midfielders would also be useful in covering for Patrick van Aanholt and DeAndre Yedlin, who would be fancying their chances of getting into the space vacated by Chelsea's equally marauding full backs. It wouldn't just be defensively where Kirchhoff, Cattermole and M'Vila would be expected to contribute though. All three would need to pick out the right passes to kick start Sunderland's counter attacks, as Jermain Defoe would be confident of getting in behind both Cahill and Terry.

Sam Allardyce would continue to encourage his players to shoot whenever possible. A constant hallmark of Sunderland's play in the last few months has been a high number of shots per game, which has made them hard to beat as teams usually have to score against them to even just get a point against The Black Cats. When you add in a much stronger looking defence, it certainly would have made Allardyce confident that Sunderland could take something from the match. Sunderland haven't had a 1-0 win all season, so keeping up their good scoring form would be crucial against a Chelsea side that have recently found form.


After surviving an early scare where Gary Cahill was forced to bring down Jermain Defoe on the edge of the box, Chelsea took control of the early proceedings. Some nimble play allowed Cesc Fabregas to drift past the Sunderland defence, only to see his attempted square ball blocked by Lamine Kone and Willian saw an edge of the box effort saved by Vito Mannone. The Blues dominated possession in the first twenty minutes, with almost 70% and they were clinical with it by completing 86% of their passes. It led to two shots on target overall during in this period and the second shot saw them take advantage of their control. A neat touch from Diego Costa got the better of DeAndre Yedlin and when Gary Cahill's attempted pass ricocheted back off Yedlin, it fell perfectly for Costa. The striker opened up his body and placed his shot into the far corner and beyond Mannone. A big blow for Sunderland but Chelsea's play had certainly merited their position.

Despite the setback, Sunderland showed no signs of their heads dropping after falling behind. They kept winning more tackles than Chelsea, which was compensating for their lack of possession and even though Chelsea were still keeping up a very high pass success percentage, Sunderland were catching them up by completing 75% between 20 and 40 minutes. The main issue though, was that Sunderland's midfielders were struggling to complete passes which was immediatly putting the pressure back on them. Mikel, Matic, Fabregas and even Hazard barely gave the ball away in the opening 40 minutes and the likes of Kirchhoff, Cattermole and M'Vila would need to get closer to their standard. It was becoming a rather end to end game, both sides going close as DeAndre Yedlin's header was denied by Thibaut Courtois and Chelsea's reaction was to go straight up the other end, where Diego Costa was inches away from getting on the end of Branislav Ivanovic's cross.

In the closing stages of the half, Sunderland started to gain some control. In the final 8 minutes of (including stoppage time), The Lads had 43% of the ball as they looked to change the half time team talk. Wahbi Khazri had been restricted from making runs with the ball as much as he would have liked to, but he did well to get away from Branislav Ivanovic, just inside the Chelsea half, to force the right back into a foul. The resulting free kick was hung up by Patrick van Aanholt, Chelsea struggled to clear their lines and Lamine Kone kept on battling for the ball in the air. When John Terry's second attempt at a Chelsea clearance fell to Wahbi Khazri, the Tunisian dipped his shoulder and perfectly positioned his body to fire an absolute howitzer beyond Courtois. Great technique and audacity from Khazri had levelled the scores and Sunderland would be hoping to have a solid platform to build upon in the second half.

Unfortunately for Sunderland, that platform was to be smashed to pieces by Chelsea. First Younes Kaboul got carried away by lunging in on Cesc Fabregas, who looped the ball into the air and when Eden Hazard beat DeAndre Yedlin to the header, Sunderland were in trouble. It left Lamine Kone with both Cesar Azpilicueta and Nemanja Matic to deal with and Kone elected to go towards the ball, only for Azpilicueta to nod it beyond him and into the path of Matic. The Serbian was left one on one with Vito Mannone and he made no mistake, putting it through the goalkeepers legs. A bad goal for Sunderland to concede and Sam Allardyce was visibly frustrated on the touchline, as he just witnessed his side hand Chelsea the advantage, as the sides went in at half time with the visitors leading 2-1.

It was vital that Sunderland came out and started the second half positively and that's just what they did. They had five shots on goal in the opening 15 minutes of the second half and Chelsea only had one, but the visitors created by far the better opportunity. With Diego Costa bearing down on goal after getting in behind the Sunderland defence, Vito Mannone got out quickly to narrow the angles and showed good agility to quickly pounce down to the right to make the save. A big save, at a crucial time and it kept Sunderland in the game. Not long after, Sunderland made their first change as John O'Shea replaced Lamine Kone, to give the home side some added experience and nous in defence.

In that same 15 minute period, Sunderland's midfielders were starting to keep hold of the ball as well as their Chelsea counterparts. It was being led by Yann M'Vila who completed 100% of his passes in this phase and, throughout the whole game, had made a couple of tackles to thwart Chelsea attacks. That improvement in the midfield passing allowed Sunderland a little more control of the game, as their possession at this time was just over 41%.

Then came in 8 minute period where the game turned on it's head. It started with another excellent save from Vito Mannone and it was Diego Costa who was once again left frustrated by the Sunderland goalkeeper. Costa picked up the ball totally unmarked from a Cesc Fabregas pass but, as he did before, Mannone was out off his line quickly to give Costa no time and space to get his shot in. Mannone made the block look easy but his awareness and decision making was superb.

Chelsea were made to rue their missed chances as Fabio Borini pulled Sunderland level after 66 minutes. Good work from Yann M'Vila to make sure Cesc Fabregas couldn't get the ball in midfield allowed the Frenchman to release Patrick van Aanholt down the left hand side. As everyone ran into the middle, Borini stayed in the space on the edge of the box and van Aanholt played it to him, with Nemanja Matic being the only player in blue to spot the danger. Borini's first touch took it away from Matic and he sent a low drive towards the bottom left which found the corner via a John Terry deflection. Sunderland's second equaliser of the afternoon and now they had to make it count.

The Black Cats wasted no time in making it count, either. Just three minutes after Borini had levelled things up, DeAndre Yedlin seized upon some sloppy Chelsea play and carried the ball down the right wing. Yedlin beat Baba Rahman (on for Ivanovic) and sent in a low cross that deflected off John Obi Mikel on it's way through. The deflection allowed the ball to kindly arrive towards Jermain Defoe, whose first touch was perfect and his second even better as he lashed the ball beyond Courtois. It was an unbelivable turn around from Sunderland as the Stadium of Light errupted in joy - two goals in three minutes saw them 3-2 up. That 8 minute passage of the match saw them have more possession than Chelsea and more shots, whilst their completed pass percentage was only 3% less than the Blues. Their added determination had allowed them to take the lead.

Just before Fabio Borini equalised, Sam Allardyce substituted Jan Kirchhoff for Duncan Watmore and altered the formation to a more orthodox 4-4-2. It enabled Sunderland to get more bodies forward and it was evident in how much that caused Chelsea problems in both Borini's and Defoe's goals. A crowded penalty area for the equaliser meant Chelsea weren't quick enough to pick up Borini on the edge of the box and when Yedlin crossed for Defoe's goal, they also had to watch Borini & Khazri, whilst keeping an eye on Watmore who was just arriving. It was certainly a gamble from Allardyce to go more attacking with so much of the game left but it certainly paid off. The final Sunderland substitution was also made during this frantic period when Seb Larsson took the place of Lee Cattermole, who was walking a disciplinary tight rope after picking up a booking.

It was now Sunderland's game to lose but, in truth, they never looked like throwing it away. A minute after Sunderland took the lead, Chelsea picked up a free kick on the edge of the box but Vito Mannone produced yet another save to tip it over the bar. There was plenty of huff and puff afterwards from the away side but Mannone was rarely troubled as Sunderland's constant gathering of bodies behind the ball closed off all available routes to goal. Another Chelsea free kick went straight into the wall from Diego Costa and it was the closest they came in the final 15 minutes. The Chelsea misery was compounded when John Terry picked up a second yellow card for a reckless and unnecessary foul on Wahbi Khazri.

This was Sunderland's day though. They'd got it right, kept their heads up and gambled at the right time. Whistles echoed around the Stadium of Light, as substitute Bertrand Traore attempted to fizz the ball across the box. Those whistles quickly erupted into cheers as Mannone caught the ball and full time was called.


Sam Allardyce got it right on the day. He was correct to stick with starting XI that has kept picking up points lately, knowing they wouldn't get overran by Chelsea. Allardyce may have expected his side to not concede two goals but the fact that the team battled back to score three, whilst still doing well to limit Chelsea's opportunities, showed that this team can attack as well as they can defend. The gamble to switch to 4-4-2, to give Jermain Defoe some closer support was a correct call as well, as Chelsea couldn't deal with more bodies in their final third and in the central positions. The substitutions were well timed and all three added something to see us over the line.

It's hard to single out individual performances in what was such a team effort. The front three will certainly grab the headlines as a goal from each of them set Sunderland on course for a massive win. Khazri scored possibly our goal of season, Borini did it again against Chelsea and Jermain Defoe added another to his list of important Sunderland goals. A tremendous, calm first touch allowed Defoe to set himself up to fire beyond Courtois but once that first touch was made, everyone knew what was coming. It was his 15th Premier League goal this season, further highlighting his ongoing importance to Sunderland Association Football Club.

Both DeAndre Yedlin and Patrick van Aanholt were vital in both of Sunderland's second half goals, as their crosses provided the assists. Yedlin may have been caught out for Chelsea's second but he recovered well and van Aanholt didn't allow Chelsea to threaten down the left very often. It was also the best game in 2016 for Yann M'Vila, as he put in the best performance of any midfielder on the pitch. He grew into the game and that was evident in his pass success rate in either half, completing on 71% in the first half but a much more assured 88% in the second. It's no coincidence that Sunderland controlled more in the midfield, the more M'Vila was involved.

I hope Vito Mannone enjoyed a glass of fine Italian red wine on Saturday night as well. Two brilliant saves kept Sunderland in the game with the score at 2-1 and who knows what would have happened had he not performed those heroics. The goalkeepers song rang around the stadium when he grasped a hold of the ball in the dying seconds and he drank in the applause like it was a fine pinot grigio. Mannone has rewarded Sam Allardyce's faith in him, not just yesterday but over the course of the last couple of months. We know how much of a confidence player Mannone is and he has a lot to be confident about at the moment.

In a bit of a slap in the face to this whole article, let's forget tactics for one second. Desire, determination and never letting their heads drop won this for Sunderland. In a relegation battle, at this stage of the season, that's just as important as all the skill and technique you can muster.

All stats are according to WhoScored

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