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Is Sunderland’s willingness to sit deep when ahead the main reason we’ve dropped so many points?

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Early in the season Sunderland’s high press was a key feature of their play and why we won so many games. At Fleetwood we saw a tired team less willing to push up - and were eventually made to pay.

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The Teams...

Jack Ross has been coming under increasing scrutiny after one win in the last five left Sunderland needing a miracle to be promoted automatically. Possibly with the play offs in mind, he made three changes to the side which started the one-all draw against Portsmouth on Saturday.

George Honeyman was dropped to the bench, whilst Aiden McGeady (who has been playing with a broken foot) and Charlie Wyke both dropped out of the squad. Chris Maguire made his first start after a break in his leg, he replaced captain Honeyman in the number ten role. Lynden Gooch came in for McGeady out wide, meaning that Lewis Morgan moved over to the left. Will Grigg came in as a straight swap for Wyke up front.

Fleetwood Town also came into the game off the back of a draw, although theirs was goalless against Bristol Rovers at Highbury. Joey Barton (urgh) named the same team against Sunderland.

Fleetwood Town 2 - 1 Sunderland AFC (30/04/2019)

Sunderland brilliant in the first 30

After the disappointment of recent results, Sunderland actually started brightly and probably knocked the ball around with the kind of intensity that hasn’t been seen since the first half at Wembley.

Chris Maguire made an impact on his reintroduction, and thrived in the completely free role that was given to him by Jack Ross. The former Oxford man was everywhere as Sunderland dominated possession. He dropped deep to get the ball from the holding midfielders, something which allowed Max Power to push forward and play more like the box-to-box midfielder we thought we’d signed, and also worked the channels well, helping to get Morgan and Gooch into the game.

Sunderland’s territorial dominance in this opening period was so strong that they effectively played with four attacking midfielders, as Lee Cattermole was able to control the game from deep on his own which allowed Max Power to play in an advanced role from which he had the best chance of the game as his shot from six yard was straight at the Fleetwood goalkeeper.

On the balance of play it is somewhat of a surprise that the opening goal came from a corner, although when Lee Cattermole headed home his seventh goal of the season few would have predicted it would be Sunderland’s only goal of the night – well, few who haven’t noticed that Sunderland love throwing away a one-goal advantage.

Sunderland were dominant for the first 30 minutes, and deserved their lead.
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How did Fleetwood’s set up contribute to Sunderland’s strong start?

Naturally after Fleetwood went behind they started to push forward more as they attempted to get something out of the game. Before the goal the hosts were conservative in the approach, both with and without the ball.

They defended in a 4-4-2 shape with a low block – meaning they were happy for Sunderland to have possession of the ball at the back – and as a result they frequently had all eleven players in their own half.

When they attacked, they also refused to be drawn into throwing bodies forward. Right back Lewie Coyle preferred to sit inside rather than overlap the right midfielder Wes Burns who provided the width down that side. On the left-hand side, full back Eddie Clarke was more happy to overlap, since the left midfielder ahead of him, Ashley Hunter drifted into a more central position – leaving space for the left back to overlap into. This meant that, whilst Joey Barton set his team up in a 4-4-2 formation, instead of attacking in a 2-4-4 shape with both wingers and full backs pushed forward, they attacked in a 3-4-1-2, leaving an extra man at the back to guard against Sunderland’s attacks.

After the goal, however Joey Barton’s side did attack with both full backs, and it is no coincidence that right back Coyle – after being conservative in the first half an hour – was the man who cut the ball back from the byline for Paddy Madden’s equaliser. This more attacking approach, especially in the second half, meant that Sunderland’s early dominance seemed a lifetime ago when Ashley Eastham headed in a late winner, which no one can say was undeserved.

Fleetwood sat deep without the ball, and didn’t leave them exposed on the counter when they attacked
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Sunderland poor in the transitional phases

Looking at Fleetwood’s set up helps to shed light on why Sunderland were able to have so much control over the game in the opening half an hour – Fleetwood allowed them to.

Sunderland’s inability to wrestle back control from an average league one team makes me wonder if their problem isn’t what they’re doing with or without the ball per se, but rather the transitions between defence and attack.

If we start with Sunderland’s transitions from attack to defence, in the very opening games of the season Jack Ross seemed to play a counter-pressing style of play – as soon as the ball was lost Sunderland would crowd the opposition ball carrier and win it back, and a number of goals in the early weeks of the season came thanks to this high-pressing.

However, for whatever reason – perhaps the introduction of Aiden McGeady into the team – Jack Ross has moved away from this tactic, and I think we’re a poorer team for it. Instead when Sunderland lose the ball, especially when leading, they are quite happy to drop back into a 4-4-1-1 shape, with wingers helping their full back and the attacking midfielder sat in behind (or alongside) the striker. This tactic is quite frankly baffling, not only back Sunderland’s defence is the worst part of their team (apart from the goalkeeper) but also because they’re poor in the other transition – from defence to attack.

Again, this is not an issue that was evident during Sunderland good early-season form, since they played with a high press and won the ball back high up the pitch, they didn’t have far to travel from where they won the ball back to the goal. However, with the defensive line now operating further back, Sunderland’s poor attacking transitions have been on full show. Too often do Sunderland go long as soon as they win the ball back – I couldn’t believe how often McLaughlin hit long balls up to Grigg who was beaten in the air each time. Since Sunderland don’t make the ball stick when they play long balls from deep, the ball keeps coming back and that is exactly what happened against a Fleetwood team who smelt blood, and to their credit capitalised accordingly.

Sunderland need to improve, and fast!
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