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Talking Tactics: How Sunderland’s direct style set up to deal with Carvahal’s possession system

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It was 4-4-2 versus 4-3-1-2, and whilst neither side came out on top, it was an interesting tactical battle between Carvahal and Grayson that saw Sunderland escape back to Wearside - perhaps fortunately - with a point.

Talking Tactics
Roker Report

Yesterday evening’s trip to the Steel City was a stark reminder of just how tough this season is going to be. However, the fact that Sunderland still came away from Hillsborough with a result, continuing our unbeaten start, is hopefully a sign that our players have the mentality required to be competitive this season.


In the first half Sunderland looked threatening every time they went forward. Aside from a composed George Honeyman finish, Lewis Grabban and Brendan Galloway spurned good opportunities.

The architect of most Sunderland chances and indeed the goal was once again Aiden McGeady, whose dribbling and crossing caused big problems for a sturdy Sheffield back line. It was his run that drew out Keiren Westwood for the opener, it was his wickedly whipped in free kick that saw Grabban nod wide, and it was his run that occupied the Wednesday defence when they allowed Galloway to burst through them.

Like many others though, McGeady became noticeably fatigued as the match went on, looking reluctant to run with the ball in the second half, and this gave the home side a route back into the game. You only have to look at the number of shots in either half to see how much the pendulum swung. In the first half, it was 6-5 in Sunderland’s favour, where as in the second, it was 12-2 to Wednesday. Any grip that The Lads had on the game had quickly unraveled and you wonder if some early changes from Simon Grayson could have at least kept the game more balanced.

Livingston v Sunderland - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Along with McGeady, Lee Cattermole was unrecognisable in the second period. Catts looked as bright as anyone in the early stages, attempting three tackles, but that dropped off to just one in the second half. Perhaps that could be down to the way Sunderland sat further back as the game went on, but the captain only had sixteen touches in the second half compared to thirty three in the first. It’s not like the team were seeing less of the ball either - the possession Sunderland had in the second half actually went up by 2%.

With the style Grayson is implementing there will always be a big emphasis on the central players. The Lads were narrow and tried to keep the game compact, which will give any midfield a lot to do, especially one that has just two central players in it.

Didier Ndong, as we’ve became accustomed to, kept up his energy levels and tried his best to compensate for the tiring legs of Cattermole. Making seven tackles and five interceptions overall (highest and joint highest on the pitch, respectively), it was a night where Ndong was sharp to break up play and snuff out potential danger. That’s no easy feat against team full of canny Championship operators and you have to feel confident that the Gabonese international will be a stand out player at this level, over the course of the season, should Sunderland hold onto him.

Didier Ndong was quite literally ‘all over the shop’, as this heatmap from last night proves.
WhoScored.com

Another whose legs didn’t seem to go was our goalscorer, George Honeyman. As well as being a good influence going forward, Honeyman showed maturity with his defensive work by pressing in the right areas and getting the better of attackers in tight situations. Scoring his first league goal will be the big take from Honeyman’s performance, as it should be, but his new found calmness in possession and sharper decision making was also showcased at Hillsborough.

Going forward, James Vaughan and Lewis Grabban once again linked up well and that was in no small part down to Vaughan winning thirteen aerial duels. He may not have flicked one on to Grabban as perfectly as he did against Norwich but Vaughan was often a pest for Wednesday to deal with. A look at the goal, where the number nine draws the defence out of position and plays a nice first time ball to McGeady, was another good example of how effective Vaughan can be in this team, playing this direct style. That first goal may still be alluding him and the chance he had in the second half should have at least went on target, but this was still another solid performance from the new striker.

Sunderland v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship
Kone and Browning’s partnership has shown promising signs so far this season.
Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Consistency was also largely prevalent in the centre of defence, as Ty Browning continued to look confident and Lamine Kone read the majority of danger superbly. It might not be a partnership we’ll be witnessing come September but with teams finding it difficult to play through them, it would certainly be a big positive for Simon Grayson if he can keep this duo in tact.

Overall, it was still a positive night for Simon Grayson and Sunderland. Not only did they maintain their unbeaten start but they also displayed their ability to create chances and, for the most part, looked like a solid unit.

They may have faded but the fact that The Lads came out of the game with a result should speak volumes to the revitalised character within the team. With the added work ethic we’ve seen in the side, this is hopefully the start of a change in mentality and a sign that they’re becoming more confident.

If Sunderland can take that into the game against Leeds United, while also being more clinical with their chances, there’s no reason why they can’t extend their unbeaten run.