Width and Directness
Once again Sunderland looked to go direct in their attacking play – no more so than Jon McLaughlin’s ball over the top for Chris Maguire’s first goal – and it was the width of the wingers which created the space for Sunderland’s attackers to received long balls inside the Wimbledon third.
The more direct play is something which was almost impossible when Sunderland set up in a 3-4-2-1 formation without wingers, as the wing backs were not able to get high enough up the pitch to stretch the opposition defence, and the presence of three attacking players all playing through the middle meant the ‘danger area’ just outside the opposition box was too crowded to make it possible for long balls from deep to find a Sunderland player in space.
With the switch to 4-2-3-1 (or 4-2-4 if you consider Maguire a striker rather than an attacking midfielder) also came the change to more direct build up play, enabled by two wingers – McGeady and Gooch – who remained wide, forcing the opposition full backs to follow them out wide and leaving Maguire and Wyke two-on-two with their centre backs, or stayed beside their central defenders, leaving with wingers in space for long diagonal balls into their feet.
When the long balls were sent up to Sunderland’s wingers they were allowed freedom to cut inside and run directly towards goal; this then allowed the full backs to overlap and retain the width which the now inverted wingers had previously provided.
Denver Hume returns
The only change from the midweek win against Rochdale was the return of Denver Hume to the starting line up following his difficult start to the season. Sunderland looked much more balanced with Hume, a left-footer and natural left back, in that position rather than the right-footed Conor McLaughlin.
With Hume in the side, both full backs were able to go past their wingers, which allowed McGeady and Gooch to make runs – both on and off the ball – from out-to-in and be more direct in the dribbling, knowing that Hume and O’Nien would maintain the width by overlapping.
Hume especially helped to give Aiden McGeady more freedom as the academy graduate’s direct runs past the Republic of Ireland international meant that McGeady could drop short and cut into a number ten position, get on the ball and make things happen.
This is Hume’s major advantage over Conor McLaughlin, his direct style of play complement McGeady perfectly, and his return in a back four meant he looked much more comfortable in defence and attacking from a deeper starting position.
The logic behind the Leadbitter-Power axis
Sunderland’s recent good form has not only coincided with a change in formation, but also with a change in midfield with Leadbitter and Power replacing the duo of Dobson and McGeouch which started the season.
The main advantage of Power and Leadbitter playing together in the middle of the park is their long-passing ability. Leadbitter’s long passing especially is his main strength when compared to Dylan McGeouch, who mainly looks to play a lot of short passes and is suited to a more possession style of play.
Also, both Power and Leadbitter are happy to drop deep and receive the ball with their backs to goal from Sunderland’s defenders, before turning to play long balls either over the top or out wide to Gooch or McGeady.
Whilst Power and Leadbitter may not give Sunderland the maximum amount of mobility they can get out of their midfield options, they are the two best long-passers in the squad and whether you agree with their selection or not, this seems to be the logic behind their position as Jack Ross’ current first choice midfield partnership.