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Talking Tactics: Here’s how Jack Ross masterminded Sunderland’s professional route to Wembley...

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Sunderland manager Jack Ross has - rightly or wrongly - came in for criticism over his tactics and team selections this season, but on Thursday night his gameplan was absolutely spot on. Here’s how he did it.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The Teams...

Jack Ross made some Sunderland fans rather nervous with his team selection which looked, on paper rather defensive.

Grant Leadbitter and Chris Maguire came into the starting eleven in place of two wingers - Lewis Morgan and Lynden Gooch. This meant that, in front of an unchanged back four and goalkeeper, Leadbitter joined Cattermole in defensive midfield, whilst Power moved forward into the number ten position - Honeyman and Maguire both started out side behind Charlie Wyke.

Kenny Jackett also made a few changes following the first leg. Anton Walkes was replaced by the fit-again Ben Close at left back, whilst the two wingers Jamal Lowe and Ronan Curtis dropped out for Viv Solomon-Otabor and Brett Pitman. These changes meant, Gareth Evans was moved out wide to accommodate Pittman in the role behind lone striker Ollie Hawkins.

Portsmouth 0 - 0 (0-1) Sunderland (16/05/2019)

Sunderland dealt with crosses brilliantly

The home side’s plan was pretty clear from the start - and their team selection. Overload the wide areas by pushing the full backs forward and keeping the wingers wide, before getting crosses into the box where Hawkins and Pitman could attack the ball.

However, Jack Ross and his team had clearly done their homework, and were fully prepared to counter this tactic.

The image below shows exactly what the benefits of Sunderland’s deep 4-4-1-1 formation. With both Cattermole and Leadbitter playing as purely defensive midfielders, and the wingers both sitting in, Sunderland managed to get plenty of bodies in the box to defend against Portsmouth’s crosses - meaning that even if Portsmouth could win the first ball, there was a man in red and white to pick up the second.

Although the defensive set up did little to settle the pre-match nerves, Sunderland executed the plan to perfection as they put in their best defensive performance at the perfect time - although it wasn’t purely a backs to the wall performance as Sunderland crucially offered an attacking threat to keep Portsmouth honest.

Here, Sunderland have 6 players in the box to Portsmouth’s 3 - a common theme throughout the match

Sunderland still managed to offer a threat on the counter

An underappreciated component of every successful counter-attacking performance is the need to offer a threat going forward to prevent the opposition from becoming so dominant that a goal is inevitable, and this is something Sunderland got right on Thursday night.

Sunderland were actually the most threatening team in the first 20 minutes, and although they were poor on the ball for the next 25 minutes, after half time they were much better in possession and saw the game out without too many scares.

It is in possession where the inclusion of Leadbitter, along with both Power and Honeyman was justified - as all of these players look after the ball well. The bravery shown whilst in possession, instead of hitting it up to Wyke too early, meant that Sunderland controlled the game before getting the attacking midfielders close to the target man.

Once this could take place then Portsmouth were forced to defend, with Cattermole and Leadbitter remaining in place to guard against counter attacks, and Alim Ozturk with Ollie Hawkins in his pocket, Jack Ross’ tactics meant that Sunderland are going to Wembley once again.

One. More. Game.
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images