Jack Ross made three changes following Sunderland’s two-one win against Rochdale which put them in need of just a draw to go into the automatic promotion places. Lynden Gooch was ruled out through injury, and was replaced by George Honeyman out wide. Grant Leadbitter returned to the side in place of Max Power, and Bryan Oviedo came in for Denver Hume.
These changes meant Sunderland went again with the 4-4-2 formation which yielded two wins in the last week. Jon McLaughlin continued to be the only player to have started every league game this season. Luke O’Nien, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and Bryan Oviedo made up the back four which finished the game at Rochdale. Dylan McGeouch and Grant Leadbitter started at the base of midfield, with Lewis Morgan and George Honeyman in the wide positions. Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg resumed their partnership up front.
Sunderland-born Nigel Clough made no changes to his Burton side who did Sunderland a huge favour by beating Barnsley 3-1 on Saturday afternoon.
The league cup semi-finalists lined up in a 4-3-3 formation. Brad Collins started in goal, protected by a back four of John Brayford, Kyle McFadzean, Jake Buxton and Colin Daniel. Stephen Quinn started as the water-carrier, alongside Jamie Allen and Scott Fraser. Lucas Akins and Marcus Harness started out wide - tasked with getting support to target man Liam Boyce.
Early Stages 4-2-2-2, good going forward, open at the back
At the start of the game, Sunderland set up in a narrow 4-2-2-2 formation, with the width coming from two attacking full backs in the shape of Bryan Oviedo and Luke O’Nien.
Even when Sunderland had the ball deep in their own half, the full backs were pushed high and wide, as the two sitting midfielders were asked to help bring the ball out from the back, both down the sides and from the middle.
Going forward, this meant Sunderland played four players across the attacking midfield strats - two ‘wingers’ (Oviedo and O’Nien) and two number tens (Honeyman and Morgan) - whilst also having two strikers to occupy Burton’s central defenders.
However, despite the fact that this set up looked dangerous going forward, it also looked open at the back - especially in behind the two wing backs.
This space was exploited by Burton, who looked to hit long balls either to target man Boyce or into the channels for Akins and Harness.
It is no surprise that Burton’s goal came from this - after McGeouch gave the ball away on halfway, and O’Nien was caught up the pitch trying to offer width, Allen played the ball through to Harness in acres of space down Sunderland’s right and his cross deflected in off Tom Flanagan.
As strong as Sunderland looked going forward, Burton looked just as dangerous countering down the channels.
Sunderland solidified things up down the sides, and the lopsided 3-5-2 returned
After Burton’s goal, Sunderland realised that they had to change tactics and block off the space which Burton were exploiting down the channels.
The immediate solution to this was quite a simple one, as the 4-2-2-2 used in the first half an hour switched into a more solid 4-4-2, with O’Nien and Oviedo acting as more traditional full backs, and Honeyman and Morgan staying wider to retain some width.
This switch also meant that the full backs retained their deeper positions until the ball was brought into the middle third, and also meant that Sunderland played a bit more direct - since Power and Leadbitter had now only four passing options ahead of them, rather than the previous six.
The final third of the game saw Sunderland use another different formation as Jack Ross pushed for a winner. The old friend the lopsided 3-5-2.
With Oviedo on the pitch once again, and given the freedom of the left hand side, George Honeyman moved into an out-and-out number ten position both in and out of possession.
Lewis Morgan then offered width on the right, with Luke O’Nien behind him slightly more defensive than Oviedo on the left - but O’Nien’s forward runs could be covered by the two deep-lying midfielders Power and Leadbitter.
This formation didn’t produce the winning goal which Jack Ross was looking for, but the change of tactics and Burton’s settle for a draw meant that the latter stages were pretty much all Sunderland - a stark contrast to the opening twenty minutes of the match where Burton looked dangerous each time they attacked.