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Talking Tactics: How plucky Wycombe nullified Sunderland’s strengths with simple tactical switch

In our tactical breakdown of the Wycombe performance we look at exactly how our plucky opponents managed to nullify what has been Sunderland’s greatest strength in recent weeks - something Barnsley would be wise to replicate on Tuesday.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The Teams...

Jack Ross named the same team that won 2-0 at home to Plymouth in Sunderland’s last league game.

Continuing in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Jon McLaughlin started in goal behind Luke O’Nien, Tom Flanagan, Jimmy Dunne and Reece James. The experienced pair of Lee Cattermole and Grant Leadbitter continued their partnership at the base of midfield, with captain George Honeyman flanked by Lewis Morgan and Aiden McGeady in the attacking midfield positions. Will Grigg continued to start alone up front.

The home side made three changes following a 4-2 defeat to play-off hopefuls Peterborough last weekend. Marcus Bean, Luke Bolton and Nathan Tyson came in for Curtis Thompson, Nick Freeman and Adebayo Akinfenwa.

Wycombe lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, a change from the 4-1-2-1-2 shape they used against the Posh. Ryan Allsop started in goal, with the back four of Jason McCarthy, Sido Jombati, Anthony Stewart and Joe Jacobson also unchanged. Dominic Gape started at the base of midfield, alongside Matt Bloomfield and Marcus Bean. Luke Bolton lined up on the right, Nathan Tyson on the left and Alex Samuel as the lone striker.

Wycombe Wanderers 1 - 1 Sunderland AFC (09/03/2019)

Sunderland failed to match the hosts’ intensity

Against Plymouth, in Sunderland’s last league game, the Lads dominated the first half with high intensity pressing, but at Adams Park on Saturday they got a taste of their own medicine as it was the home side who came out of the blocks quickest - pressing us from the first minute of the game.

Whilst Wycombe, unlike Sunderland against Plymouth, didn’t employ a high pressing strategy to win the ball in and around the our box, they instead used their high intensity to force us to go long.

This tactic undoubtedly worked, especially in the first half where Sunderland had only 53% possession - compared to the 63% of the ball Jack Ross’ side enjoyed in the second half as Wycombe tired.

Sunderland found themselves with no time on the ball to build attacks through the midfield, and the average time they had possession was only 10 seconds - down from 15 seconds last weekend.

Of course, many have pointed the finger at the dirtiness of Wycombe’s play - something shown not only by the two red card they received, but also since they committed 15 fouls. For perspective, Plymouth committed only 8 against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.

However, their gameplan clearly worked and Sunderland were unable to match Wycombe’s intense pressing with their own fast paced football - and long balls were the order of the day, something which played straight into the hands of Gareth Ainsworth’s defence.

Sunderland were poor in the first half and deserved to go into the break behind
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Do Sunderland need a plan B?

For all of the first half, and in fact for must of the match, Sunderland’s midfield duo of Lee Cattermole and Grant Leadbitter struggled to get a foothold in the game - and Sunderland’s overall play suffered as a result.

Gareth Ainsworth had clearly done his homework, and saw that if Wycombe could block off the simple passes from Sunderland’s central defenders to the deep-lying midfielders then Sunderland would revert to long hopeful balls into the channels.

The transfer window has shut, so any possibility of Sunderland finding a defender who is composed on the ball has gone - Jack Ross is stuck with what he has, including central defenders whose usage of the ball is poor and often detrimental to our all-round play.

Our Plan A of keeping Cattermole and Leadbitter deep to receive simple passes from the limited defenders is the right strategy, and covers the weaknesses of Flanagan and Dunne whilst allowing us to keep the ball on the floor - a style of play suited to a Sunderland team that is one of the smallest in league one.

But, as Wycombe showed on Saturday, if Sunderland are forced to go long then they struggle, and fluid forward play turns into stale turgid route one football without any end product.

The obvious way to combat this would be to put Charlie Wyke up front - a striker in the mould of a traditional target man/battering ram - to allow Sunderland to bypass the midfield, instead working on McGeady, Morgan and Grigg getting on the end of flick ons and second balls. This wouldn’t be pretty, but it certainly can’t be any less effective than what we saw in the first half on Saturday.

Unfortunately, Wyke was unavailable on Saturday, so Duncan Watmore assumed the role of being a pest to the Wycombe defenders, and whilst his energy didn’t directly get us the goal, it did push Sunderland further up the pitch, since Wycombe were fearful of his pace in behind and he was the man in the right place at the right time to finish deep into stoppage time.

He’s Back - Duncan Watmore scored his first league goal after injury, and what a time to score it!
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

How to get the best out of Will Grigg

Whilst Will Grigg has certainly contributed to Sunderland’s good performances (not including the poor display on Saturday), it is a slight worry that he’s only had one clear chance in front of goal in the past three matches - his goal at Bristol Rovers in the Checkatrade Trophy semi-final.

I for one don’t believe the answer the question of how to get the best out of Will Grigg is to give him a partner up front - he said himself after signing for the club that he has played the majority of his career as a lone striker; and after all its not his hold up play that is concerning, but a lack of goals.

The obvious answer would be to play Max Power, Grigg’s team mate at Wigan, and Honeyman’s red card and impending suspension would mean there is a space opening up in the Sunderland midfield. Power also set up Grigg’s goal at Bristol Rovers, and could also help to solve the lack of height in Sunderland’s midfield.

Another option for Jack Ross could be to sacrifice the good all-round play we have seen from Grigg in order to try and increase his goal return - and playing someone like Duncan Watmore, someone not blessed with amazing technical ability, but a willing runner and a hard worker, in behind Grigg could allow the former Wigan man to concentrate on playing within the penalty box and getting on the end of chances or half-chances.

Whatever happens, Jack Ross may have to look again at his system in order to get the best out of his marquee signing - a man who has the quality to get the goals to fired Sunderland to promotion.

Will Grigg is still not off the mark from open play in the league - should we be worried?
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

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