Wasteful shooting the only difference from Doncaster display
Sunderland again put in a much improved attacking display as they attempted to start 2020 as they had ended 2019. In fact, the performance - certainly the attacking performance - was almost an exact replica of the game at Doncaster Rovers.
Sunderland even created more chances on New Year’s Day than they did in South Yorkshire, but poor finishing let them down, and only a Chris Maguire penalty salvaged a much-deserved point.
Sunderland’s attacking performance once again found itself reflected in the stats for the game. An xG of 2.73 was up almost an entire goal from the game against Doncaster (xG, 1.81) but Sunderland were unable to convert any of their chances from open play, whereas they scored two just 3 days earlier.
Furthermore, even the basic shots on target stats show where Sunderland’s problems fell - at the feet of strikers, wing backs and attackers who couldn’t hit a barn door. 19 shots, 12 from inside the box, led to only 4 on target - including Maguire’s penalty - means that Sunderland only had one more shot on target than goals they were predicted to score.
However, finishing chances is probably one of the best problems to have as a manager. Not only does it show that the tactics and match strategy are starting to improve, with the transfer window open - and that fact that xG tends to get things right over the course of the season - if Sunderland doing the right things in the first two thirds of the pitch, the goals will come.
Sunderland more leaky at the back as they chased the game
As I have already noted, Sunderland’s chance creation was actually improved from a pretty high bar at Doncaster, however they paid for this by becoming more exposed at the back as they looked to find a way back into the game.
Ched Evans’ early goal came from a “debatable” penalty, and meant that Sunderland were forced to play much of the game on the front foot as they pushed to get something out of the game. This is reflected by Sunderland’s increased share of possession - 58% overall and a sizable 63% in the second half - which shows that it was Fleetwood who were the side playing on the counter against a Sunderland side who were designed to do just that, and had done so with great success just three days prior.
Sunderland’s large share of possession did not, however, translate to control and domination of the game. In the second half especially the match was stretched and became rather end-to-end, with Fleetwood wasting several of their own good chances as they - like Sunderland - also underplayed their xG score of 2.29 (which was a massive increase on the 0.63 score which Sunderland allowed Doncaster) as Jon McLaughlin made a couple of good saves to keep his side in the game.
The openness of Sunderland’s defence as they pushed forward - even before Parkinson made any attacking substitutions or changes to his formation - perhaps shows why Parkinson has chosen to set Sunderland up with seven defensive players on the pitch, as he simply doesn’t trust his defence to keep the opposition out without this support from the midfield. This is a similar conundrum to the one that Jack Ross faced last season as he also refused to drop one of his two defensive midfielders.
That is why Parkinson will be looking to develop this system and perhaps improve the dynamism of his midfield during the January transfer window, rather than simply throwing more players in attacking positions. If he did so from the start of the match, the Fleetwood game showed us how many chances Sunderland would be giving up.
Parkinson beginning to develop a plan B
Although it was a long time coming, Sunderland did manage to rescue a point from Joey Barton’s Fleetwood with a penalty of their own, won by one of Parkinson’s substitues Duncan Watmore.
I was one of many fans who was critical of Parkinson’s negative substitution when he replaced the injured Tom Flanagan with Laurens De Bock despite drawing at home to Bolton on Boxing Day, but when behind on Wednesday afternoon Parkinson showed that he is beginning to develop an alternative to Sunderland’s 3-4-2-1 formation when his side are looking to get back into the game.
Although it could be argued that Parkinson’s natural tendency to be cautious meant he made his attacking changes too late, his decision to bring Duncan Watmore on for a defender - Jordan Willis - showed that does have some idea of how to adjust his starting tactic and make it more attacking.
Furthermore, the switch to a back four didn’t cause Sunderland’s wing backs to drop back and behave as is customary in a back four, but instead they remained high up the pitch - essentially allowing Sunderland to play with two players in the “Lynden Gooch role” picking the ball up and running at the opposition defence, and this is exactly what Watmore did to win the penalty.
The second substitution which saw Marc McNulty come on for George Dobson, and Chris Maguire dropped deeper to allow McNulty to play in behind Wyke. Although this took place in the same 4-2-3-1 shape, it made me wonder if the use of Maguire - or another of Sunderland’s attacking midfielders such as Elliot Embleton when he returns to fitness - in this deeper role could be done without changing from the 3-4-2-1 shape Parkinson prefers.
Power could remain as an anchor for the midfield, and especially when at home this would allow Sunderland to get two players who can run at and stretch opposition defences, without losing the playmaking ability of the second attacking midfielder.
The next game, back at home to Lincoln would be a great time for Parkinson to start to use his more attacking ‘Plan Bs’, if not from the start then certainly if Sunderland find themselves in a similar position as they did on Boxing Day against Bolton.