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Talking Tactics: Why Sunderland were hard to break down & why defenders are crucial to our play

Everyone’s talking about the goal that wasn’t, but the truth is that we learned a lot more about this Sunderland team in the win against Bradford than we have in maybe any other game in recent weeks.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The Teams...

Sunderland made four changes following the disappointing three-one defeat at Fratton Park before Christmas. Reece James and the suspended Glenn Loovens dropped out of the defence, and were replaced by Bryan Oviedo and Tom Flanagan - who returned from injury. George Honeyman missed out due to injury, which meant Chris Maguire returned to the starting eleven. Up front Josh Maja was deemed fit enough to start in place of Duncan Watmore, who dropped to the bench.

This meant Sunderland returned to their 4-2-3-1 formation. Jon McLaughlin started in goal, with Luke O’Nien (aka Canny Alves), Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and Bryan Oviedo making up the back four. Max Power dropped back into defensive midfield alongside Lee Cattermole. Lynden Gooch started on the right with the goalscorer Aiden McGeady on the left. Chris Maguire started in the number ten position - but often pushed up alongside striker Josh Maja to make the shape more of a 4-4-2.

Bradford City named an unchanged side following their two-nil home win over Scunthorpe.

The visitors lined up in a 4-4-2 formation. Richard O’Donnell started in goal, with Paul Caddis, Nathaniel Knight-Percival, Ryan McGowan and Adam Chicksen offering him protection as a back four. Hope Akpan and Lewis O’Brien started in the middle of the park, with David Ball on the left and Jack Payne starting in a free role on the right. Eoin Doyle and George Miller started up front.

Sunderland AFC 1 - 0 Bradford City (26/12/2018)

The role of Sunderland’s defenders in the build up play

It is generally accepted that the position Sunderland need to strengthen the most in the upcoming January transfer window is central defence, but the reliance on the passing ability of these defenders in Sunderland’s build up play means that getting the right player in may be easier said than done.

Whilst to many a ball-playing defender may seem like a requirement for teams who play “tiki-taka” football - the Manchester City’s and Barcelona’s of this world - Jack Ross’ slightly more direct build up play also requires his centre-backs to have good passing ability.

This is because Sunderland’s play often starts with a long ball from one of these defenders to a wide player - who is then supported by his full-back and the other three attacking players in the 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 system.

Jack Baldwin’s performance on Boxing Day encapsulated the type of defender Jack Ross will be looking for next month - the former Hartlepool defender won everything in the air, whilst on the ball playing a number of cross field passes to Sunderland’s wide players, most often Lynden Gooch.

So, whilst Sunderland undoubtedly will look to by a physical defender in January, it is important that those in charge of transfers don’t overlook the more technical qualities required by centre-backs in Jack Ross’ system.

Baldwin is exactly the type of defender Jack Ross requires, now he just needs a reliable partner
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The double-pivote gives a solid base

Despite Sunderland’s only goal coming in the first half, their most dominant period in the game was actually the period just after the interval. Bradford were barely able to get out of their own half as Sunderland piled the pressure on and won corner after corner.

Unfortunately, Sunderland’s inability to get the ball in the net for a second time meant a nervy finish to the game - but this impressive period after half-time showed the main advantage of using a two-man defensive midfield.

The reason Bradford found it difficult to get up the pitch is because - for all their attacking players - Sunderland had four players in the middle of the pitch to block any breakaways. Furthermore, the presence of two defensive midfielders meant the full-backs - O’Nien and Oviedo - had complete freedom to push high and wide up the pitch.

This all meant that Sunderland had a line of six attacking players, all whilst four players were back (often up against only two or three of Bradford’s attackers).

The image below shows how Sunderland’s six attacking players are stretched across the entire width of the pitch - although because this is soon after a Sunderland corner, the full backs O’Nien (out of picture) and Oviedo (circled green) are in deeper positions - alongside Flanagan and Baldwin - in place of Cattermole (third from the left) and Power (furthest right).

This highlights Jack Ross’ focus on vertical passing to get the ball into the final third, before allowing his players free-reign to express themselves, create chances and score goals.