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Talking Tactics: How Parkinson has used current tactical trends to transform Sunderland’s style

From 3-2-5 formations to overlapping centre backs - the two main tactical trends Phil Parkinson has adopted which have transformed Sunderland’s style and results on the pitch.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images


Over recent seasons, the majority of Europe’s top teams have started to split their side into 5 attacking players and 5 defensive players when in possession, with this most commonly coming in the form of either a 3-2-5 of 2-3-5 shape. This strategy was started most obviously during Pep Guardiola’s final season at Bayern Munich, and was brought to British shores when he took over at Manchester City, and has started to be used by many top-flight sides since.

Now whilst Guardiola’s adaptation of the 2-3-5 has mainly been used to get two attacking midfielders and three forwards into the same side - with the full backs tucking inside alongside the defensive midfielder and two wingers providing the with in the front five alongside the lone striker and two attacking midfielders - other teams such as Mourinho’s Spurs have adapted this shape to include three centre backs in a 3-2-5 shape, which is the formation also used by Phil Parkinson in recent weeks.

In truth, Parkinson has taken a more literal interpretation of this current tactical trend, since both Guardiola and Mourinho’s examples are done so by adjusting the roles in a back four, whereas Parkinson has set Sunderland up with a back three, then two centre midfielders operate in a double-pivot with wing-backs O’Nien and Hume encouraged to push on and give the team width as part of the front five alongside attacking midfielders Maguire and Gooch as well as target man Wyke.

The main pro of Sunderland’s adaptation of the “5-5” shape is to guard against counter attacks, and there’s little doubt that since Phil Parkinson came to the club Sunderland have looked much more solid at the back and have arguably the best defence in the division.

The benefits of this system have been clear to see over recent games, where whilst Sunderland's attacking output has increased exponentially, their good defensive record has remained stable, meaning those extra goals have turned narrow defeats and bore draws into wins, rather than score draws.

The average position of Sunderland's players against Lincoln shows this 3-2-5 formation most clearly

Overlapping Centre-Backs

Whilst Phil Parkinson’s change to a 3-4-3 formation coincided exactly with his use of a 3-2-5 shape when in possession, a more recent addition to Sunderland’s tactical armoury has been his own adaptation of Sheffield United’s overlapping centre backs.

Unlike the trend of teams playing a 3-2-5 shape, the so-called overlapping centre backs have only been used regularly by one side. Sheffield United actually started this trend when they were in the lower-leagues and found that releasing one of the centre backs from their defensive position helped them to create overloads on the wings, and was especially useful when breaking down deep defences.

I mentioned in the opening section how Sunderland’s 3-2-5 shape when in possession helps to guard against counter attacks, however during extended periods of possession - when Sunderland settle into the two blocks of 5 players - runners from deep are sometimes needed to break up the structure of Sunderland’s attacks, and create overloads when opposition defences are marked up man for man.

Whilst these runs from deep come most traditionally from a midfielder, Sunderland don’t really have an out-and-out box to box player who can make these runs forward without leaving them exposed at the back, so the best place for this overlapping player to come from is one of the centre backs.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Unlike Chris Wilder's side, Sunderland don't go all out on the overlapping centre backs band wagon. Only the right-sided centre back - Jordan Willis - overlaps since the Tom Flanagan, playing on the left of the back three, is right-footed and when Joel Lynch came on at half time, Sunderland were already there goals ahead, and the number of Willis's overlapping runs decreased.

Sunderland's overlapping centre back also operated mainly on the right side due to the positioning of O'Nien and Maguire who made up the rest of Sunderland's right hand side.

Unlike Gooch and Hume on the left, who look to stretch defences with numerous runs in behind the opposition's defence and midfield, Maguire looks to come deep and get involved in the build up play, whilst O'Nien - who has played most of his career in midfield - is also happy to take the ball inside.

This moment leaves room for the right-sided defender to overlap as if they were playing as a full back, and is exactly what took placed for Sunderland's second goal against Wycombe on Saturday. Maguire came deep and pulled out wide before exchanging passes with O'Nien, leaving Willis as the most advanced player on the pitch as he pulled the ball back for Hume to finish coming in from left wing back.

It was a goal which sums up Sunderland's attacking transformation since Boxing Day, with a centre back cutting the ball back to a wing back, as players were pushed forward into the final third. The formation on paper hasn't changed, but no one can argue the Phil Parkinson's side are playing seven defenders any more.

This map of Jordan Willis's actions against Wycombe shows he was happy to get involved in Sunderland's attacking play on the right wing

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