More attacking intent changed Sunderland’s formation
The fan campaign against owner Stewart Donald and manager Phil Parkinson didn’t force the former Bolton gaffer to deviate from his now clearly preferred 3-4-2-1 system, which received much criticism following Sunderland’s goalless draw on Boxing Day for its inclusion of seven defensive players.
However, despite the fact that the formation on paper stayed the same, in practice Sunderland set out with much more intent than has been seen in recent months.
Whenever a team sets up in a 3 or 5 at the back formation, the positioning of the two wing backs can give an early indication of how attacking the team is trying to be - if both wing backs play close to the centre backs, and mark the opposition’s wingers (as Sunderland’s wing backs have done in recent games) then its clear the formation is a 5 man defence, and the team is playing for a point.
However, if these wing backs are more aggressive in their positioning and look to close down the opposition high up the pitch as well as get forward when their team have the ball, then the formation is accurately described as a three man defence, and as such is more attacking.
Thankfully, despite not changing formation on paper, the intent Sunderland’s wing backs showed at the Keepmoat effectively marked a change from the 5-2-2-1 used in Sunderland’s winless streak to a 3-4-2-1.
Sunderland’s wing backs brave in their pressing
One reason why Sunderland were able to play with more attacking intent was because their wing backs - Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume - were asked to press more aggressively than in previous games.
As I mentioned in the opening section, how far forward the wing backs press often sets the tone for how attacking (or defensive) a three at the back formation is going to be, and both O’Nien and Hume had clearly been instructed to press Doncaster’s wide players and force them back, and leave the wide centre backs to shuffle across and close the space in behind them.
The high press of the wing back meant that Sunderland effectively pressed in a 4-4-1-1 formation with O’Nien stepping up into midfield, Hume dropping in and Willis shuffling across to make a back four, and Maguire and Gooch retaining their positions and joining O’Nien in the press.
The importance of the aggression and intent shown by the wing-backs in their press is difficult to fully explain, because it has a knock-on effect all over the pitch. Not only do Sunderland have one extra player forward when they win the ball back, but they also have an extra player to join in the press, making it more likely that they are going to win the ball back, since the attacking trio are able to press Doncaster’s two centre backs and two centre midfielders instead of one of these players being forced to close down the full back, leaving the other two attackers outnumbered four-to-two and unable to initiate an effective press.
The front three made it stick, and this meant Sunderland attacked with purpose
Whilst much of Sunderland’s good work was - in rather typical Parkinson style - done without the ball, the ability of Wyke and his two supporting players Gooch and Maguire to gain control of Sunderland’s long balls forward was probably the biggest difference in Sunderland’s attacking play from the toothless display against Bolton.
Whilst Wyke actually won a similar number of aerial duels as he did against Liam Bridcutt’s Bolton (he won 8 of his 16 “air challenges” on Boxing Day, and was only marginally more successful at Doncaster, winning 13 out of 25), the ability of the former Bradford forward to at least make life difficult for opposition defenders to get a good clearance on the ball meant that Gooch and Maguire - who managed to get close to Wyke when he was challenging for the ball - were able to pick up these second balls and secure possession for Sunderland in Doncaster’s half of the pitch.
Since possession was secured, Sunderland also had time to open out from their defensive heavy 5-2-2-1 formation and attacking in a 3-2-5 shape, with Hume and O’Nien advancing past the three man attack of Wyke, Maguire and Gooch.
A good example of this move was the winning goal where, although Gooch was given the ball directly rather than via a Charlie Wyke knock down, the American’s ability to secure possession in the Doncaster half gave Denver Hume the chance to overlap and play the ball across goal for the onrushing Maguire to finish.