Reports have emerged that the Stadium of Light pitch has been resized ahead of the new Championship season, as images of the change were posted to Twitter on Thursday morning.
Although such a late change may worry some sections of the Sunderland support, it is likely that Grayson wanted to see how his team performed on the large Stadium of Light pitch in the final preseason game against Celtic and has acted drastically in response to the performance.
The pitch was previously 110m x 75m, with a square area of 8,240m2. The pitch at this size was the eighth largest in the country, the same size as the much – erroneously – vaunted “huge” pitch at Wembley Stadium. According to FA Regulations, pitch sizes in England must be within 120m and 90m in length and have a width between 45m and 90m.
The shortening of the pitch has already taken place; however, rumours are swirling to what the final dimensions of the newly resized surface will be. The accepted norm seems to be a 6m shortening in length, and a 2m reduction in width of the pitch to 99m x 66m, however no other team in the English Football League or Premier League has a pitch below 100m in length. Thus, the final dimensions may well be 110m x 68m, with a square area of 7,140m2, resulting in the Stadium of Light pitch going from one of the largest pitches within English professional football to the tenth smallest – with only Wolves’ Molineux and Burton Albion’s Pirelli Stadium pitches smaller than the Stadium of Light’s in the Championship.
Simon Grayson has a history of doing this, as he carried out the same procedure two years ago while manager of Preston North End. The Deepdale pitch size was reduced to its current 101m x 67m in the summer following their promotion back into the Championship. Although many fans were initially apprehensive over the change, the long-term effect benefitted the Lilywhites, who finished eleventh in successive seasons under the Yorkshireman and even threatened for a playoff place until a dip in form in late 2016/17.
But what will this mean on the pitch for Sunderland? Preston played a direct style of football under Grayson, with high intensity and pressing vital to their defensive work. Grayson has attempted to implement a similar system thus far with Sunderland, with wingers cutting in a supporting the central attacking players whenever possible. This will tend towards a long-ball, direct style at home games this season, presumably with much play focussed out wide. It will also help many of the players in the squad who are lacking in terms of fitness levels, stamina or basic pace.
Although narrowing the pitch suggests a narrow style of football, this is actually not the case. The aim here is to counter quickly out wide, with crosses into the box early and often, as the drastically shortened length means the central striker receives the ball much closer to goal. Often in possession-based, space-orientated styles of play, a much wider and longer pitch helps.