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Long ball football v Direct football: Mythbusting a misconception of Parky’s Sunderland’s play

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Direct wing-play and combinations at pace allowed Will Grigg to reap the benefits of the change in attacking tactics and play his best game in red and white to date on Tuesday night - and as the InStat statistics show, it was far from turgid, long-ball football.

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Sky Bet Leauge One
Grigg gets off the mark for the season
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Upon the first links to Phil Parkinson cropping up roughly a week before his appointment as manager was announced, the Sunderland online echo chamber dissolved into meltdown almost en-masse. Questions were uttered over his suitability for the role, whether or not he could inspire the Lads to promotion and, chiefly, remarks were made that he employs a “turgid” style of long-ball football.

On the evidence of his managerial career this is generally correct, with his penchant for a target man leading the line and direct football evident - just look at his top scorers in previous years: Chris Iwelumo, James Hanson and Gary Madine. However, direct football is not necessarily long-ball, and nor is it turgid if employed correctly.

One of the most pleasing and effective parts of Tuesday night’s performance was the evidence of a game plan and all the players on the pitch knowing exactly what their role is at all times. Tactically, for the whole 90 minutes the ball was worked in a variety of differing ways aimed at exploiting Tranmere’s weaknesses, mainly to double-up out wide, expose their lack of a commanding presence in front of the back line and tendency to sit deep.

Under Jack Ross, that game would have almost certainly been a low-scoring affair in which we relied upon either giving the ball to McGeady and hoping for the best, lumping it long to a striker with his back to goal or shooting from distance at every opportunity. However, all of the five goals resulted from moves in which the Tranmere defence was merely dismantled at pace and panache.

Sunderland v Grimsby Town: Leasing.com Cup Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Under Ross, Will Grigg was largely consigned to scraps and constantly had to turn with his back to goal and hold the ball up for the attacking midfield players. He was positioned as high up the pitch as possible and more often than not was seen chasing down lost causes.

However, on Tuesday evening he played at least 10 yards deeper in the first phase of attack before then making his way into the box later than previously anticipated. Though on the face of it, moving a previously prolific forward who thrives off poaching in the box may have been unwise, it worked wonders on the night.

Thanks to the space afforded to Chris Maguire to run the game in behind the Northern Irishman, the players who found themselves furthest up the pitch were Lynden Gooch and Duncan Watmore running in behind.

The move for the first goal absolutely typifies the success of this approach (as seen below). Grigg himself would often arrive late into the box ready for a cut-back from out wide and was time-after-time completely unmarked and could’ve scored three had a last-minute block and frame of the goal not got in the way.

Those two were willing runners all night as out front four which started the game combined brilliantly over and over again, registering seven goals and assists as a unit. However, not all the goals were intricately worked as Watmore or Gooch’s but resulted directly from effective direct football.

Direct and long-ball football are two entirely different things. Long-ball is simply hit and hope. See Jon McLaughlin attempting to pass (accurately or not) 13 times to Charlie Wyke against Lincoln City. On Tuesday, Burge either passed or received the ball six times to Joel Lynch, five times to Duncan Watmore and just four times to Will Grigg (according to Instat). But in spite of this, we still changed up the approach and went direct when necessary.

However, this direct approach was aimed out wide to overload and outnumber Tranmere’s full-backs with Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien pushing high and allowing Watmore and Gooch to run beyond the visitor’s defensive line.

Some of the combinations in the channels and out wide were some of the most effective we’ve seen over the course of the last two years. Grigg linked up brilliantly with these wide players throughout the game, with his keen movement in the first half proving far too much for the Tranmere defence.

Our fourth typifies this. Luke O’Nien pushed up high and made his way to the byline while Marc McNulty and Will Grigg loitered in the middle. In the end Grigg tapped it in with an easy finish - but this tactic which threatened all night made the goal easy - not just Tranmere’s absolutely woeful marking allowing it.

He combined with Maguire, Gooch, O’Nien and Hume more than anyone else on the night. From the outset the tactic was to go direct out wide before working the ball into the box and creating chances for Grigg to score, or others who had also capitalised on the poor defensive rigidity with great movement and exuberance.

The below graphic (from Instat) shows that his role was not to battle for scraps in the opposing penalty box and chase loose ends, but drop deep, avoid an aerial battle and become the tip of a very sharp spear before arriving late into the box unmarked.

Note his lack of challenges in the penalty area against Tranmere defenders and willingness to constantly recycle play out wide.

Grigg’s impressive statistics from Tuesday evening
Instat Football

Of course it is very early in Phil Parkinson’s tenure and he has only had four or five training sessions in earnest with the Lads, so to adduce whether or not this is actually a tactical shift thanks to the new gaffer or just a “new manager boost” in which the formerly lethargic and beleaguered star striker has shifted from one goal in 13 to two goals and two assists in three games is almost impossible. Regardless, however, the early signs are very positive.

Parkinson did, however, in his post-match interviews at the weekend deduce why we failed to create at Wycombe and outlined a blueprint to follow:

Even Saturday, at times we turned down the opportunity to deliver from good areas and come back out.

We’ve got to look at that because goals come from quality crosses in good areas, and we didn’t get enough of those on Saturday.

There’s two key areas, we haven’t kept enough clean sheets and we haven’t created enough chances for our strikers, who I believe will score goals if we do.

That’s just logical if you look at the season to date, and I think all players want to play in a side that’s progressive and excites the supporters.

This is almost word-for-word exactly what happened on Tuesday night, and I’m sure he was delighted. As a collective, we created more chances for Grigg than in any other game since 5th March in the EFL Trophy Semi-Final against Bristol Rovers through 55 actions, nine of which were in the opponents box leading to six attempted shots, one goal, an assist and another shot cannoning off the post.

The relief around the ground when Will Grigg scored was palpable, and he more than deserved the standing ovation he received at the end of the game. However, part of that was just a tangible notion that swirled around the ground in the 90th minute that if we are to achieve promotion into the Championship this season, then Will Grigg is the man to lead us there.

Maybe, just maybe, that victory on Tuesday could prove to be the beginning of a turning point for both Sunderland and Will Grigg in League One.