It’s the 92nd minute at the Reebok arena. Aiden McGeady is about to step up and spare the visitors blushes with an equalising penalty to rescue a point and add another illustrious 1-1 draw to Jack Ross’ impressive collection. Who would have thought a mere 72 hours later, the same team that had just escaped away from a side who were beaten 6-1 the previous weekend, were about to go toe to toe, and win, against Premier League opposition?
Not many, but a delve into the statistics begins to show a theme in Sunderland’s game that points towards an obvious element that is hampering - or helping - depending on which competition the team plays.
Sunderland amassed 2 shots on target against Sheffield United, and 3 against Burnley, whilst putting together 20 shots total against Bolton. Whilst it could be argued lesser opposition will naturally present more opportunities for the side with better players, one statistic that can’t be argued, is that Sunderland produce better results when they have less of the ball.
Whilst it’s a small sample size, there’s been a total of three games this season in which Sunderland have maintained considerably less possession than the opposition.
A victory against Portsmouth, a victory against Burnley, and yes, you guessed it, victory against Sheffield United. In fact, Sunderland have averaged comfortably over 50% possession in League One this season, whilst victories in the League Cup have averaged a considerably lower 34%.
Again, that is to be completely expected when playing away at Premier League opposition, however, it also points to a style of play that suits being out of possession more regularly, and taking chances when they come, rather than looking to take the game to the opposition, on the front foot.
There’s been frustration on the terraces that Sunderland, for all the talent at their disposal, can’t seem to break down even the poorest of League One defences more than once; incredibly slow build up play, a lack of dynamic runs from strikers and wide players, and crucially, not winning games comfortably.
That’s where the explanation lies in Sunderland’s seemingly random victories against Premier League opposition. Despite the results, Jack Ross has actually implemented his style of play very well, the players know what is required in his system, and they execute. The problem lies in how the opposition react to it. Crucially, the results haven’t come but you can see that in Sunderland’s repetitive shape, movement, elements of build-up play to the corners to come back inside, that the players are working as the manager expects.
This causes an issue as, in League One, Sunderland’s name precedes them. With that, teams are willing to sit tight, packing the midfield, and allowing Sunderland the time to build up to the half way line, when an organised bank of five midfielders then four defenders have a relative easy job of sticking man to man, one always spare covering midfield or sweeping defence, with at least one Sunderland defender always left in his own half.
Sunderland’s lack of pace means that this defending is again made easier, as most of the time the full back’s main concern is stopping McGeady cutting inside to unleash a shot, or beating him on the outside to deliver a quality ball. Even then, his centre half’s and midfield have had the time to pack the box and pick up Sunderland players.
When playing Premier League opposition, that totally changes and it’s where Jack Ross sees his philosophy take shape, with the results to match. As we’ve touched upon, Sunderland have had considerably less possession in the games against Sheffield United, Burnley and Portsmouth. This is because those teams are happy to come out and play into Sunderland’s hands. That is, moving the ball forward with less consideration for defensive shape. Midfielders not set, full backs covering central defenders who have stepped up to start or join an attack, allows Sunderland short passing play to exploit spacing in behind both midfield and defence, where the likes of Chris Maguire, Aiden McGeady, Elliott Embleton or Lynden Gooch have the opportunity to play another pass or create an opportunity, with defenders crucially behind them fighting back into position, as opposed to in front of them, requiring pace or trickery to beat them.
This naturally means Ross would need to rip up his tactics board and start again, setting his side to be less worried about ball retention, and more concerned about effective counter-attacking play, isolating defenders, and taking the chances created.
This theory is further strengthened by the results in League One. Ross has stated his style of play is meant to help clean sheets, yet it’s clearly not working. The old adage “you can’t score if you don’t have the ball” is true, but despite Sunderland holding more possession than the opposition in most League One games this season, they’ve amassed 0 clean sheets in the League.
If Ross wants to be more effective defensively, he must first be happy for his team to have less of the ball, and he could learn a lot from both the Burnley and Sheffield United games. Less possession, less of an influence on the direction of the game, but encouraging the opposition out of position to then counter, or build up, has resulted in two victories.
A crucial part of this is being able to accept that his defence is going to make a mistake from time to time. Regardless of the style of play, we’ve learned over nearly 70 games that it’s going to happen, so being more effective in possession, or more simply put, having quality over quantity, will lead to better results.
Less of the ball means Sunderland face more opposition attacks, but perhaps more crucially it creates the space to counter and create effective chances. Back to those 20 shots against Bolton. Only 2 were on target. With over 60% possession.
In summary, Ross has to learn from this. What is for certain is Sunderland are not on course for automatic promotion, but victories against Burnley and Sheffield United prove the talent is there, it just needs to be used effectively and in a system that takes more risk, but clearly provides better results and most likely automatic promotion.