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Talking Tactics: Sunderland were much improved, but there’s still work to do

Sunderland put an end to their losing streak this past weekend with a draw at Preston, but how did they set up, and was Simon Grayson’s tactical plan properly executed?

Finally, some creativity!

For the first time in what feels like a generation Sunderland had more shots in a game than their opposition! That might not seem like a big deal, but after a dreadful run of form where we’ve never looked capable of hurting anyone, it was encouraging to see the team playing with some attacking intent.

It was of course spearheaded by Aiden McGeady, whose free-kick presented the opportunity for Sunderland to open the scoring and his perfectly placed effort gave The Lads equaliser after the North End fans had barely finished celebrating their lead. When in possession, McGeady always looked threatening against his former club, attempting the most dribbles of any Sunderland player and he completed 70% of his passes - not bad for a creative player when you consider their penchant to attempt the the impossible.

Aiden McGeady completed 5 dribbles - more than any other Sunderland player

It wouldn’t be fair to go without giving a mention to Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman either. A lot of fans (myself included) scoffed when they saw the pair included ahead of players such as Callum McManaman, Jonny Williams and Bryan Oviedo, particularly after a run of lacklustre performances. However, both looked driven and played with a good tenacity in the first half, linking up superbly for the opening goal.

It was hardly a masterclass in attacking from Simon Grayson’s men but to see them using their possession effectively and having a clear plan when going forward was refreshing. They moved up the field quickly, were far less hesitant and looked brave enough to try and be incisive, even if it didn’t always pay off.

Let’s not forget, Preston had only conceded one goal at home all season. Alex Neil has his team highly organised and tough to break down, so while it might be frustrating that we didn’t come away from Deepdale with three points, the attacking play should still give supporters something be hopeful about.

Cattermole & Ndong - Back to looking like a partnership

Cattermole may have faded slightly in the second half but when you’ve been critical, it’s only fair to give praise when it’s due. In the first half, Catts looked much more like the player we know and love, playing competitively and putting a stamp on the game. During that opening 45 minutes, he saw more of the ball than any Sunderland player and completed the highest amount of passes, showing his desire to drive the team on.

Didier Ndong attempted 10 tackles, twice as many as anyone else on the pitch.

Alongside the former Middlesbrough midfielder, Didier Ndong arguably put in a man of the match performance. Just like Cattermole, Ndong was back to the form we know he’s capable of and dominated the midfield just like a player of his quality should be doing. Making more interceptions and tackles than anyone else just underlines how he ran the midfield and his athleticism in getting up and down the pitch didn’t just help Sunderland get up the field, it hindered Preston’s ability to break forward.

At the start of the season, I thought a midfield of Cattermole & Ndong would be able out manoeuvre most in this division. It’s became clear in recent weeks that it won’t be that straightforward but to put in such a strong performance away from home, against one of the leagues better performers, highlights that the pair shouldn’t be written off just yet.

Some leadership at the back

You can’t call a defensive display where you’ve conceded two goals “great” but, after the recent horror shows of Cardiff and Ipswich, the back line looked far more settled and had some composure to it.

While we should have stopped Preston in their build up to the first goal, I have a degree of sympathy when it comes to the equaliser, as James Vaughan was a tad unfortunate to steer Josh Harrop’s dangerous free kick towards goal. The second should have definitely been prevented in the build up, but Jordan Hugill finished brilliantly (if only we had the cash for him, eh?) and left Jason Steele with no chance.

It can’t be ignored that Sunderland need to get that first clean sheet and conceding the amount they do is inexcusable but that shouldn’t detract from the defence finally looking settled and cohesive.

It’s fair to say that John O’Shea adding some much needed leadership and experience to the back four will have been a big factor in the defence not looking like complete strangers. The captain was dominant in the air, winning eight aerial duels and he made an impressive four tackles, both of which were top of the pops amongst his defensive colleagues. Alongside JOS, Tyias Browning had his best game in over a month, intercepting well and winning a good amount of headers. It was a big call from Grayson to drop Lamine Kone but Browning alone looked to benefit from having O’Shea in his ear all game and they should definitely be the defensive duo against Queens Park Rangers.

John O’Shea added some much needed composure to the SAFC defence

If they can keep on the trend we saw against PNE, Sunderland’s defenders will soon get that clean sheet monkey off their back.

Not perfect but hopefully it’s the start of us getting back on track

It’s clear that Simon Grayson wants his Sunderland side to play in narrow 4-2-3-1, sometimes becoming a flat 4-4-2, depending on where the ball is. It’s looked stale in recent weeks mainly due to how rigid the team has looked and a lack of movement has made it easy for teams to defend against us. At Deepdale though, there was much more fluidity and the players looked like they had been given some freedom to express themselves.

There were a few things that clicked into place that made that possible. Aiden McGeady wasn’t just back in the team, he was back on form, with unpredictable play and he dragged defenders all over the shop. The midfield pushing on a bit further forward and looking stronger than they have in weeks meant that Sunderland gave the ball away far less and even when they did, they were strong at winning it back. Even James Vaughan contributed with some strong aerial play (see his nod down for Honeyman’s goal) and dropped deep to allow Gooch, McGeady & Honeyman to push beyond him.

Later in the game, Duncan Watmore’s long awaited return gave the team some much needed pace which should have led to Preston goalkeeper Chris Maxwell being sent off and on another day, could have later won Sunderland a penalty when he appeared to be brought down when trying to connect with a cross.

Duncan Watmore’s long awaited return from injury was certainly a positive

In short, it was just so much better from Sunderland. Perhaps the only way could have been up after such a dismal few weeks but this performance should be used as platform to build upon. It wasn’t perfect, of course it wasn’t, we didn’t win after all but at least we could once again see what the team was trying to achieve and they looked good doing it.

If Simon Grayson can get his team to keep attacking this way and get the defence tightened up, things will start to get better.

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