Jack Ross made three changes to the Sunderland side which started Friday night’s two-all draw with Accrington Stanley. Tom Flanagan replaced Jack Baldwin at centre back, Lee Cattermole replaced Lynden Gooch and Friday’s game changer Chris Maguire came in for Charlie Wyke.
These changes meant that Sunderland went back to the 4-2-3-1 formation they’ve used for the majority of this season. Jon McLaughlin was in goal, with Luke O’Nien, Flanagan, Jimmy Dunne and Reece James making up the back four. Lee Cattermole partnered Grant Leadbitter at the base of midfield, with George Honeyman, Chris Maguire and Aiden McGeady behind lone striker Will Grigg.
Gillingham made just one change following their one-nil win at home to Scunthorpe at the weekend; Billy Bingham was replaced by Darren Oldaker in midfield.
The visitors lined up in a narrow 4-3-1-2 formation, with Tomas Holy in goal and Luke O’Neill, Max Ehmer, Connor Ogilive and Barry Fuller in defence. Oldaker started at the base of midfield, flanked by Mark Byrne and Leonardo Da Silva Lopes. Graham Burke started in behind Tom Eaves and Brandon Hanlan.
Sunderland played narrow to match Gillingham up
Sunderland manager Jack Ross lined Sunderland up in a very narrow formation - the trio behind Will Grigg often appearing like three central attacking midfielders, rather than two wingers and one number ten.
This narrow midfield and attack meant that the width was provided by the full backs, Luke O’Nien and Reece James. O’Nien (number 13 on the below diagram) especially pushed very far forward, which not only led to him winning two penalties when Sunderland attacked, but also prevented Gillingham’s right back (Luke O’Neill, number 2) from providing width when the Gills attacked.
In defense, Sunderland benefitted from the willingness of their wide midfielders (Gooch or Honeyman on the right and Aiden McGeady on the left) to track back and mark the visitors’ full backs when they got forward. This meant that Sunderland’s wide defenders sat in narrow alongside the centre backs, helping them to deal with Gillingham’s narrow from three as Cattermole and Leadbitter dealt with the opposition’s central midfielders.
Individual errors at the back remain
Despite limiting Gillingham to just five shots from inside the box, which hints a largely solid defensive performance, Sunderland were again let down by poor individual errors at the back.
Tom Flanagan’s poor clearance led directly to Tom Eaves’ goal after just six minutes, whilst the defense as a whole were two slow to react as Hanlan’s shot deflected off Dunne into the path of the Gillingham number nine.
The Gills second goal was also due to an individual error at the back by Sunderland - the Black Cats allowed a corner to go through everyone before Honeyman sliced his clearance back into the danger area and Hanlan made no mistake from the edge of the six-yard-box.
Jack Ross got his tactics largely spot on - Gillingham had minimal opportunities and you can’t complain about scoring four goals - but against a better side these individual errors may have been the difference between one point and three.
All stats courtesy of InStat.