High Press and High Line
Sunderland’s play in the opening 30 minutes was positive, and following McNulty’s goal right at the start, it looked like Jack Ross’ team could be out of sight before half time.
Sunderland started with a clear plan from the outset - long balls over the heads of Rotherham’s tall but immobile centre backs for the front two McNulty and O’Nien to chase, hassle and generally make a nuisance of themselves.
What made this tactic work so well was that Sunderland managed to remain vertically compact even when the front two chased ball right into the corner. This is because when the strikers moved up, so did the midfield and defence, with Ozturk and Willis happy to hold their defensive line on the half way line, knowing that the latter had the pace to cover long passes over the top.
This led to Sunderland winning lots of second balls as the front two pinned Rotherham’s defenders into the corners and forced then to play rushed, poor passes that Sunderland’s midfield - who pushed up to back the forwards’ press - could pick up on before launching Sunderland back onto the attack.
However, for all this was a good start, after McGeady’s penalty miss Sunderland’s performance went off a cliff, and an all too familiar one-one draw was probably a fair result.
Sunderland were set up to counter quickly
Another key part of Sunderland’s good start was the way they set up without the ball. They pressed from the front with O’Nien and McNulty, whilst remaining compact in a 4-4-2 formation ready to pounce forward.
When they did win the ball back - most commonly by the industry of George Dobson, or interceptions made by Dylan McGeouch - the number of and speed at which Sunderland got players forward was striking.
The wide players especially didn’t make runs down blind alleys into the corners, but instead made a beeline for the box, as did Dobson from midfield.
This set up generally caused havoc deep in the Rotherham half, from which Sunderland looked to make their superior individual quality stand out - unfortunately this quality was missing on an evening where Sunderland’s final ball was lacking, if this had been improved we may be talking about a second win in a row.
Too deep in the Second Half
So far, I’ve mainly talked of the positive part of Sunderland’s play, which mainly came inside the first 30 minutes. However, there was a clear drop in quality right from the start of the second half.
Whilst Sunderland did attempt many of the same things when in possession - long balls for the strikers to chase get the team up the pitch - this tactic was much less effective in the second half than it was in the first.
This was mainly because the side’s starting position was too deep - as shown by O’Nien playing more as a midfielder than a forward - meaning first McNulty and then Wyke were left too isolated to successfully press the Rotherham defenders into mistakes
Furthermore, when Sunderland did win second balls they were too far from goal to launch successful counter-attacks as Gooch and McGeady had too much ground to make up to overload the box.
This dropping deeper is most likely not a tactical switch, but a result of tiredness after a frantic first half hour. But, if Sunderland continue to play at full throttle from the first whistle Jack Ross must come up with a game plan which proves successful when energy has been sapped from Sunderland’s legs.