Team Selection - Perfect
Let’s just get it out the way now. That was absolutely fantastic. The first-half was simply the most complete performance from a Sunderland side I have seen since arguably either the Reid era, or the magic carpet ride in the second-half of Keano’s first year in charge.
The tone was set almost immediately, with the Lads attacking from the outset and pinning Scunthorpe back with some excellent pressing. The Scot made one change from the last league game, replacing 16-year-old Bali Mumba with Lee Cattermole - who deserved his spot after an excellent showing in the League Cup against Sheffield Wednesday.
Not only did Ross set his side up to perfectly to expose and overload the away side’s young and inexperienced left-back, but he also picked on merit. Cattermole is divisive at best and has performed poorly of late, but he ran the show against Sheff Wed and fully deserved his return to the first-team in the league. Max Power is a real all-round midfielder; his stamina, energy, and willingness to run all game compliments Catts’ physical weaknesses.
Despite the asymmetric line-up, the side was incredibly balanced from the outset, and clearly designed to pressure the Iron’s defence. On-loan left-back Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was injured in their cup loss to Doncaster last Tuesday, and Ross set his side up to properly capitalise on this. Lewis Butroid has only eight senior appearances to his name and is a much lesser attacking threat than the Manchester United loanee, so Ross placed Chris Maguire in a very narrow free-role knowing their threat from the left would essentially be nullified.
Verdict: A perfect line-up for a perfect performance. Credit to Cattermole, without his quick-thinking under pressure the second goal may never have came - it would have been so much easier just to thump the ball towards goal and hope for the best.
Tactics - Vertical
Firstly, the statistics; 82% possession (88% successful passing), 15 key passes, 18 shots (8 on target), 8 corners, 32 dribbles (78% successful). They of course don’t paint the whole picture, but the one they’ve merely framed is that of sheer dominance. That passing percentage is the second-highest we have ever produced over the course of one ninety-minute match since the statistic has been recorded.
I genuinely can’t recall such a dominant performance and result in tandem - maybe the 3-0 win over Everton under Big Sam? Even then, the goals were more due to clever set pieces rather than genuinely tearing a side apart attack after attack.
A few detractors have claimed this may “only be League One”, but we can only defeat what we are facing, and boy did the Lads pull it off with aplomb on Sunday. Playing Scunthorpe in the League for the first time since 1963, the Lads dominated from the off. Chris Maguire has been essentially given a free role at times, but here he was tasked with supporting Josh Maja in what was basically a lopsided 4-4-2.
Ross’ balanced personnel choices allowed for such a formation. Max Power used his stamina and energy to fulfill a vital role in him covering the gaps Maguire left pushing so high and centrally.
Bryan Oviedo pocketed two more assists, taking his tally for the season to three in three games, but his all-round play and ability well above this level allowed him attacking freedom all down the left while Jack Baldwin was more than able to cover ground vacated by Oviedo in defence. When on the ball Balldwin sprayed it around acting as a libero, basically plying himself alongside Lee Cattermole at times.
Just look at the positions Baldwin and Ovideo occupy in the build-up to our first goal.
The whole move for our first goal on Sunday is dripping with quality. This time last year the ball would've been pumped into the box by Matthews at the first chance. Here he recycles play, and after a few lovely interchanges and top-class play from Maguire and Ovideo, we score. pic.twitter.com/1g6o5gwjR4— James Nickels (@JamesNickels) August 20, 2018
Lynden Gooch likewise pushed very high on the right, basically playing on the shoulder of Butroid, completing more take-ons than any other player on the pitch. The whole formation was vertically high as our pressing off the ball and a keen ability to win the ball high upfield pinned an already deep Scunthorpe defence very deep in their own penalty area.
The whole tactic was deployed with verticality on the pitch as the way of splitting the Scunthorpe defence, due to the evident quality gap, their makeshift defence was pulled all over the place and resulted in one of the most dominant first-half displays I have ever seen at the SoL.
All the players deserve praise, but Ross has set-up a system here where possession is a priority, but territory is king. Over the first 45 minutes, Lee Novak only touched the ball four times and, barring two moments, the away side hardly got a look in.
Baldwin should have been penalised for a clumsy tackle on Novak at 0-0, but somehow the referee deemed it a fair challenge. We got a bit of luck and capitalised with aplomb.
Verdict: Tactically very astute. Scunthorpe’s strikers didn't have the pace nor service to threaten our very high line.
Substitutions - Effective
The subs were basically bang on. Adam Matthews was forced off in the second-half due to injury, but Ross changed his tactics to suit. We shifted to another lopsided 3-5-2 formation, with Reece James slotting in a left centre-back but pushing wide to create what was basically a 4-4-2 on the ball.
Ross is clearly very tactically astute, but the players adapt and carry out his instructions exceptionally well, even this early in the season.
Bali Mumba and Luke O’Nien offered much-needed legs late in the second-half as the Lads professionally saw the game out and ticked off a first clean sheet of the season. Mumba acted as a screen for Cattermole, just ticking possession over with his tidy style - and even picked up a few lovely positions in between the Scunthorpe defence and attack. His clever play began the move for Josh Maja to, surprisingly, miss an absolute sitter in the second-half after a clever known-down from Honeyman found him free in the middle.
The captain was replaced himself by Luke O’Nien late on, which made sense considering how much ground he covered over the 83 minutes.
His role in this system is slightly less-heralded. Although he essentially plays as an attacking midfielder, he constantly covers ground all over the middle of the park, and his pressure on whoever has the ball in midfield makes it almost impossible for the opposition to build attacks from deep and set-off a counter attack against the high-line. As a result, just 21 of Honeyman’s 86 touches were in his own half on Sunday.
O’Nien himself had little time to impose himself nor even get involved in a game which had very much petered out by the end, but I think he is more suited to this role, rather than deeper in midfield as he played against Charlton.
Verdict: Sensible substitutions to see the game out. Changing to a back-three defensively basically killed off any chance of the visitors scoring from open-play. Against Charlton he changed the game with his tactical tweaks, while here he ensured all three points and a clean sheet.
Post-match comments - Measured
One of the things I believed I could try to address straight away was how we play in this stadium and the results we get here.
We hammer home the importance to the players all the time of making this a place where opponents dread coming to.
I’ve been there myself, when I’ve been to Ibrox and Parkhead as a player in Scotland, they were horrible at times to go to because you knew what you would face in terms of the standard of the opposition and the way they would play. If they started in that manner, you knew the crowd would get behind them. It was difficult, you almost feel like you can’t breathe.
That’s what we need to do to teams here. It’s easy to talk about it, but the next part is doing that on the pitch.
I think what we’ve seen so far is a group that are trying to do that and play in a manner with high energy levels, getting after teams and playing in a really expansive manner. It’s just a start for us. We’ve got some really tough games to come here, and there’s always a real intensity about the games because of how opposition teams view it.
We want to make it a place where teams will look at the results and think they don’t want to come here.
I think the fact we scored three and created opportunities, and we’ve kept a clean sheet, it was pretty much perfect in that sense. I think every player made a contribution in different ways.
It sounds very simple, but it’s of the utmost importance [the support]. If you don’t have it, it’s very difficult to progress. I’m lucky I’m manager of a club that has 30,000 home fans behind us. That can work both ways, and it’s happened here at times and I’m sure it might happen again on occasions. But if we get it going in the right way, it’s brilliant.
The responsibility falls on me to keep putting a team on the pitch that reflects that passion from the stands. It’s been nice to give that back in two very different games at home and two very enjoyable games for the supporters. Hopefully, it gives them a taste so they want to come back and have that again.
With what we’re trying to build, it’s important that we started the season positively.
It is interesting Ross once again mentioned psychology and the mindset of both his players and fans. To be honest, after such a near faultless performance there is very little to say publicly rather than give praise and look ahead.
Verdict: I particularly liked him mentioning the double-edged sword of the SoL atmosphere. if it remains the same, we will finally be a real force at home. Ross is as measured as he is excited.