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Talking Tactics: Sunderland’s switch in formation allowed them to dominate Charlton

Sunderland weren’t able to get their third win in a row, but another clean sheet and better chance creation gives hope as Phil Parkinson tweaked his formation.


Sunderland made a slight adjustment to their formation, lining up in a 3-5-2 shape rather than the 3-4-2-1/3-4-1-2 used so far this season.

Although on paper the three-man midfield indicates that Sunderland were looking to control the middle of the pitch, Phil Parkinson continued his preference for exploiting spaces out wide and the mezzale (wide centre midfielders) Gooch and Scowen were often seen on either touchline, leaving space for Grant Leadbitter to dictate play from the centre of the pitch.

The extent to which this three-man midfield had created space for Leadbitter was such that, after starting the game matching up Sunderland with their own 5-3-2 formation, Charlton switched to a 4-1-2-1-2 formation 25 minutes into the game with Erhun Oztumer at the tip of the diamond occupying the space patrolled by Leadbitter.

Ironically, after Charlton made this change to react to Sunderland’s 5-3-2 the visitors enjoyed their best spell of the match, as the width of Sunderland’s midfield trio, along with the wing backs and overlapping centre backs led to overloads in wide areas resulting in a number of chances which Danny Graham could not convert.

Sunderland dropped into a standard 5-3-2 without the ball

5-3-2 Out of Possession

Without the ball, Sunderland used the 5-3-2 formation to defend the middle of the pitch and force Charlton wide. Phil Parkinson’s teams will never be high, aggressive pressing teams, but they are full of eleven players willing to work hard without the ball.

Both strikers, the two mezzale and the wing backs all looked to direct Charlton away from Grant Leadbitter’s ageing legs in the middle of the pitch; something which forced the home side to go long – playing into the hands of Bailey Wright and co in the Sunderland defence.

In the opening 25 minutes this led to Charlton having the lion’s share of possession as they were content to ‘play the right way’ and recycle possession before looking for an opening. However, as Sunderland demonstrated how organised they were without the ball the Addicks went more direct, allowing Bailey Wright to head clear and Grant Leadbitter to take control of the game.

5-3-2 In Possession

In possession, Sunderland burst out from their compact 5-3-2 into a much wider 3-5-2. Leadbitter was left to patrol the middle of the pitch as Scowen and Gooch split to play almost as out-and-out wingers on their respective touchlines.

This meant that when the wing backs advanced Sunderland could isolate Charlton’s full backs – who had no direct protection – whilst Jordan Willis especially provided a further overload down the right-hand side.

It was the combination which led to Scowen being released in behind the Charlton left back before crossing for Graham to blaze over from under the crossbar.

How Sunderland’s players moved from the 5-3-2 to create overloads out wide

The inclusion of Lynden Gooch as a midfielder may have raised a few eyebrows, and he’s not a natural fit for a regulation midfield role. But when being asked to work hard in defence then play as a winger in attack Gooch may have found a way of cementing a place in Phil Parkinson’s preferred eleven.

The great irony of this system is that a played who appeared to be expendable – Grant Leadbitter – becomes a player for whom Sunderland have no replacement. George Dobson is a good ball winner, but his main downfall is his passing – Leadbitter’s main strength.

Despite failing to get a win at the Valley, Parkinson’s willingness to change formation to create more chances has to be a positive and with the second striker role occupied by Aiden O’Brien perfect for their most productive attacking player Chris Maguire, it could be the solution to the Black Cats’ attacking impotence.

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