Team Selection - The little things
Chris Coleman couldn’t put out an unchanged team due to a suspension accrued by Lee Cattermole's red card last week at Wolves and, as such, made one change to the side which drew at Molineux. James Vaughan came in for the aforementioned Cattermole as Coleman ushered in a new formation.
He moved away from what he was famous for at Wales and played a 3-5-2, with Vaughan joining Lewis Grabban up top. George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch both tucked inside, flanking Darron Gibson in narrower, but familiar roles. The back-six remained unchanged for the second game in a row; a first this season.
It is nice to be able to see some defensive continuity, having suffered for far too long this season from numerous changes to the defensive and goalkeeping personnel. Despite Coleman having obviously worked with his side on the training pitch drilling the three-man defensive formation into his players, he has been helped by some defensive continuity - no side can constantly change their personnel at the back and expect continued success and familiarity.
This is a somewhat attacking selection, especially considering the plethora of offensive talent available to Slaviša Jokanović at Fulham; Ryan Sessegnon and Fredericks are two of the best attacking fullbacks in the whole division, Tom Cairney is a supremely talented midfielder and they have pace in abundance in Rui Fonte and Sheyi Ojo, without even mentioning a host of other creative options.
However, the change was not just encouraging, but vindicated and a wholly correct decision. Coleman rightfully identified Fulham’s defensive fragility; not in ability nor pace, but physicality. Their central defenders; Tim Ream and Tomáš Kalas (or Denis Odoi) struggle aerially, and are all relatively slight in terms of both physique and strength. This is clear from our selection, with Vaughan evidently brought in to exploit it. Just a minor but vital change, he obviously appreciate the little things.
As a whole, the formation suits our players both individually and as a whole, and Martin Bain deserves credit for convincing Coleman to join the club.
Verdict: Coleman made a vital change that allowed us to dominate Fulham for long periods; the continuity also led to a second clean sheet in a row, and three in four games. Vindicated.
Tactics - Tactical shifts
In defence, we played much the same as at Molineux last weekend - as outlined in the image above. When Fulham advanced with the ball, our two wide central midfielders and wing-backs pressed and covered out wide, while Gibson and the back three held their positions. As Fulham would advance, the defence morphed into a flat back-five, with the midfield trio were busy either following runners, pressing ball carriers, or limiting space in the central areas.
Lewis Grabban dropped into a deeper role, covering passing lanes and Fulham’s deepest central midfielder, forming the point of a diamond. Vaughan took up a similar role when he was introduced last weekend, highlighting the sheer defensive nature of Coleman’s set-up. Here, however, he was charged with being the first-line of defence, charging down Fulham’s defenders and working tirelessly in order to limit their time on the ball.
Sessegnon and Fredricks pushed very high and wide, providing Fulham’s width in their system, as Kevin McDonald dropped deep in order to cover their exposed central defenders. Stefan Johansen - usually a central midfielder - featured as a false nine, and dropped very deep alongside Cairney as Fonte and Ojo featured very narrow, both between the gaps vacated by our back three. This formation provided very little freedom for the opening 35 minutes as we dealt with most they threw at us, bar two opportunities when the sheer pace of Sessegnon and Fredricks carved out two good chances for Oliver Norwood and Johansen.
Jokanović changed his approach towards the second-half, pushing Cairney higher up the pitch and instructing him, Ojo and Fonte to make runs in behind Wilson and Browning. In fact, the width of their wing-backs and Johensen’s runs deep isolated our wide midfielder - be it Honeyman or Gooch - who pushed wide or followed the run, subsequently opening up this space in front or behind Wilson and Browning, and the Serb was astute in noticing this early on.
This resulted in a concerted spell of Fulham pressure before the second half. However, the defence held out, and one covering block by Ty Browning on Cairney in particular was superb. Anticipating the danger in the first place belied maturity beyond his years.
For the first 60 minutes we used Vaughan as the focal point to build upon, and we centered most of our attacks on balls into the box towards our strikers, particularly through the extremely effective outlet of Honeyman and the excellent Matthews on the left-hand side. Build-up play was slow and measured as we passed out way through the Fulham ranks effectively, as shown by the footage below.
Sunderland in the first-half against Fulham had a much slower, possession-based build-up play, aiming to get bodies up the pitch and overload Fulham's central defenders with crosses into the box. pic.twitter.com/IYWgzi3zHI— James Nickels (@JamesNickels) December 19, 2017
Matthews was provided ample time and space on the ball by the constant movement from the excellent Honeyman, and was able time and time again to find his man in the box with a perfectly weighted cross. Honeyman himself came close with a rasping drive from deep in the first-half, and the lads throughout heeded Chris Coleman’s call last week to be much more trigger happy.
Honeyman and Gooch switched between moving into the half-space or overloading the box as the striking pair were joined by one of the two and the opposition wing-back on numerous occasions in the first-half. Our four most clear-cut options before the goal all came from our slow play cutting Fulham apart before launching the ball into the middle.
Chris Coleman identified Fulham’s weaknesses and instructed his side to expose them at every opportunity. The image below is essentially the first-half in microcosm:
However, another tactical shift, coupled with a key double substitution shifted the game in our favour once again.
Verdict: Excellent tactics by Coleman, for the first time in a long-time we looked both dangerous in attack and solid in defence. Our depleted squad, to a man, were brilliant. Intelligent.
Substitutions - Transformative gamble
With half an hour to go, it was Coleman’s turn to switch tactics in order to look for the much needed winner in a game balanced by the thread. He pushed his whole defensive unit much higher up the pitch, and looked to play on the counter as often as possible. Even with Grabban and Vaughan still on the pitch. The pair, particularly Grabban, attempted to stretch the Fulham defence and get in behind.
However, the pair simply did not have the pace or energy after such colossal effort to get in behind the impressive Ream and Kalas, who are both very quick across the ground. As such, just ten minutes later Coleman kept the same approach but introduced youngsters Josh Maja and Joel Asoro, with energy, pace and enthusiasm in abundance.
Tactically, Coleman himself realised what he needed to do to change the game, and had the balls to do it. It is no mean feat to replace two experienced strikers with a pair of 18-year-old starlets without a senior league goal between them. But it worked perfectly, and it was two-fold.
Off-the-pitch, the emergence of the highly rated pair from the dugout increased excitement in the crowd. Both approval and fervent optimism at seeing two academy products pushed on to get that much-needed first home win in 364 days resulted in a pair of roars that would ordinarily only meet a goal elsewhere in the country (yes, Fulham, I’m looking at you and your “neutral end”).
On-the-pitch, however, it was transformative. Maja and Asoro were fresh legs who had the pace to get in behind, and were ably found by our midfield high on both morale and confidence. The goal epitomises our approach in the final half-hour:
In the second-half, however, Coleman's tactical switch to a swift, counter-attacking style paid dividends. Our forward line stretched Fulham's defence in behind & led to the goal. Some great midfield play by Gibson too, the vision and technique to play the ball; then follow it. pic.twitter.com/vT3DJVWUX7— James Nickels (@JamesNickels) December 19, 2017
Coleman just before this introduced Didier Ndong at arguably the perfect time, as Lynden Gooch started to tire from his incessant running and pressing for 65 minutes. The USMNT player was on a yellow card, and Coleman thus wisely substituted him for Ndong, who slotted into midfield completely unlike a man who had been missing for a month due to a knee injury.
The tactical shift and three proactive substitutions in quick succession resulted in a defensive, tactical shift. As aforementioned we moved up to find that equaliser. But once Josh Maja finished with aplomb, the defence sat back and soaked up all of Fulham’s pressure superbly. We reverted to a 5-4-1 in defence as Asoro dropped deep to protect Love on the right.
We held out, and finally found that incredibly important home win. The way the Lads worked together at the end of the game and swatted away every attack in a passionate yet organised manner was highly impressive. Two moments stay in my mind late on.
Firstly, Tom Cairney sat on the edge of the box ready to shoot, only to be charged down by no less than six players running at him and throwing their bodies at the ball to block the shot.
Secondly, very late-on Ryan Sessegnon was played in behind our defence for the first and only time in the whole of the second-half with a brilliantly timed through ball, and all of our defenders stepped up to play offside, bar one. Donald Love was the only player on the pitch to read the danger, follow the run, track back and intercept brilliantly. He may have been poor to mediocre at best on the ball, but his work off it was both astute and impressive.
Verdict: Coleman knew exactly who to bring on and when to do it to change the game. All the worlds best manager must be brave, they must carry out make or break decisions. Ballsy.
Post-Match Comments - O’ Captain! my Captain!
These words by Walt Whitman were meant for Abraham Lincoln, mourning his death and eulogising his memory in his ode written just moments after his assassination in 1865. I think all Sunderland fans love a managerial cult of personality, and in Coleman, we’ve got one.
Immediately after the game, Coleman praised the two youngsters who changed the game, but astutely mentioned Grabban and Vaughan’s impact too:
It was a great finish. The game was balanced nicely and it was a nice time to introduce two new strikers onto the pitch.
Grabbs and Vaughany had done their job really well, they had worked really hard and apart from a fantastic save from the Fulham No.1, we would’ve been 1-0 up anyway.
We thought it was a good moment to bring on two young players and they didn’t disappoint.
The goal was fabulous, the timing of his run, getting between two defenders and the ball in from Adam Matthews was fantastic. It was an amazing time to score and it got us over the line.
Vaughany and Grabban had been running hard for 70 minutes. It is thankless task sometimes but in terms of a gamble we needed some fresh legs on the pitch. Didier (Ndong) did a good job for us and the new lads linked up well.
I could go through all the players in the squad today, it about all of them and they have been great today.
It is vital the two more experienced heads don’t feel isolated amidst all the fever generated around Maja and Asoro. Typically, Coleman also praised the team effort, a favoured tool for Coleman and effective one for us as fans.
However, his most astute words followed;
It was a small win. It was a small gain, but we need to keep building and keep the consistency in our work every day in training.
We need to keep the organisation we’ve had and we will get away from where we are.
It has to be a collective effort and it has come from the training ground where the lads have worked their socks off. These boys have put a real shift in and it is no coincidence they have got some points.
They really have put a shift in. It has been a great effort up until now but we have got a lot of games still to play and a lot of work to do – especially over this festive period.
This isn’t simply the mandatory platitude after a win of “not getting carried away”, but proves that Coleman, just mere minutes after a vital home win - his first, surrounded by euphoria - he was still thinking ahead. Coleman fully well knew while delivering his post-match comments that on Saturday coming, we play rock-bottom Birmingham City.
Though only recently taking up the position, momentum is everything. We are on a steep upward trajectory, whereas the Blues are the polar opposite; 2 wins in 11, 0 wins away from home, a league low 16 points and 11 goals - a club detached from its players as much as they are from their manager.
Yet, we cannot underestimate anyone. Coleman knew this on Saturday, and he will drill this into the team all week.
Verdict: Coleman is a manager with astute tactical acumen, yet his single greatest asset is still his natural charisma and man-management ability. Beguiling.