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Talking Tactics: Is Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland plan starting to take shape?

With three draws and two victories in Sunderland’s last five league games, has Phil Parkinson finally got his Sunderland side playing an effective brand of football, or are we getting ahead of ourselves?

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

In recent weeks, Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland have looked like a different team compared to the one that had Sunderland languishing in its lowest ever league position. That’s not to say that Phil Parkinson suddenly has this side capable of battling for promotion, but rather that the improvement seen on the pitch is something to be recognised and cheered.

From a change in shape, to a specific style of play, Parkinson’s Sunderland seemingly have the beginnings of an identity, or a preferred style of play. But what are Sunderland doing differently? What impact has it had on our play? And what could it spell for the future?

Sunderland average position vs. Doncaster (Dec 29th 2019)

Players embracing 3-5-2

Phil Parkinson’s initial adoption of a 3-5-2 formation was greeted with many a quizzical look. Jack Ross had tried the method earlier this season to no great impact, and fans were unsure whether Sunderland had the personnel to really use the formation effectively.

With limited wide options, Sunderland struggled to generate attacking opportunities both under Ross and in the early weeks of Phil Parkinson’s reign (Tranmere aside). As such, both managers had dabbled with different formations in order to try and find a decent balance to the side.

However, the first image in this article, along with the one below, highlights the fact that Sunderland have adapted their style to play to their strengths.

Three central defenders provide a decent level of stability at the back, allowing Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien to get forward and provide pace on the overlap. Hume in particular has impressed out wide where he has created a host of opportunities for the side - averaging out to three key passes per game.

Defensively, Sunderland are relatively sound at the moment; however, lapses of concentration do continue to be something of a worry, and should continue to be addressed. Doncaster’s equaliser was a stern reminder that Sunderland are by no means a finished product.

Sunderland average position vs. Lincoln (Jan 4th 2020)

In the middle of the park, Max Power and George Dobson have done a solid job winning over 50% of their challenges and neatly spreading the ball around the pitch with over 80% accuracy.

The other major change to the side’s approach, however, is allowing Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire license to roam. As the average position maps note, Charlie Wyke is tasked with holding the ball up centrally, allowing his fellow forwards the chance to get into good positions, or make runs beyond.

Gooch has 3 goals in his last 5 appearances, whilst Maguire has 2 goals and 4 assists. Wyke isn’t performing to those numbers, unfortunately, but his presence and willingness to battle is certainly helping others find the back of the net.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Approach play

One great fear Parkinson brought with him to Sunderland was the tag of being a long-ball specialist. A dinosaur. Someone who would encourage hoofball.

The early weeks suggested that could well be the case; however, recent performances have perhaps offered an alternative assessment.

In one of his opening interviews as Sunderland manager, Parkinson spoke about finding ways to try and get the ball into the box in order to play a numbers game, and at present that is what it looks like Sunderland are trying to do.

Against Lincoln, for example, Sunderland managed 513 passes, but only 48 of those passes were long (40m or more). That being said, of those 48 long balls, 32 of them found a Sunderland player - including Jon McLaughlin’s punt that put Gooch in on goal.

Sunderland attacking moves vs. Doncaster (Dec 29th 2019)

Sunderland, though, ten to pass between 10 metres and 40 metres, with 354 of our passes falling within that range, As such, it’s fair to say Sunderland are a direct team.

The attacking moves map above and below, show that Sunderland look to move the ball quickly and often out wide to one of the attacking wing backs. Against Doncaster, Sunderland found a lot of success out wide - the winning goal coming from neat interchange on the flank that allowed Hume to pull back for Maguire to convert.

However, when that doesn’t work, Sunderland do struggle to break down their opposition and struggle to formulate a Plan B - and that is a worry. The big difference has been in an improved level of accuracy and willingness to gamble, but Sunderland must not fall into the trap of being a one-trick pony.

What does this mean for Sunderland moving forward?

It’s clear to see that Sunderland need to continue to improve if they are to challenge for promotion - this is by no means an article aimed at suggesting Phil Parkinson has cracked the code.

However, the positive point to note here is that Sunderland do seem to have a style of play that is beginning to get some results. As such, Sunderland’s transfer window should now be guided by attracting personnel to fit into this style of play.

For example, the pace of Lynden Gooch and Denver Hume has been perhaps the number one positive for Parkinson’s side. Duncan Watmore is used sparingly in order to stretch tired opposition defences with his natural pace, but Sunderland need more.

Parkinson could well do with another pacey forward capable of getting beyond the main striker in order to provide more depth and quality in the roles seemingly held in totality by Gooch and Maguire.

Furthermore, a lack of depth at wing back could well derail Sunderland’s new style of play. Should Hume and O’Nien succumb to injury who would be capable of filling in and providing the energy and pace required to thrive in that position?

Finally, Sunderland need a forward not only capable of holding up play in the opposition’s third of the pitch, but someone who can also find the back of the net. Boyd, Lafferty, and Madine have all been named as potential targets, but who will Parkinson look to bring in, and who else will make way?

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