Lee Johnson once again lined his Sunderland side up in a 4-3-3 formation. Despite consistently playing a version of 4-4-2 at Bristol City, his first three games at the Stadium of Light indicate that 4-3-3 is Johnson’s Plan A for this Sunderland squad.
With no further injuries to contend with since last weekend, Johnson made two tactical changes to the side that won at Oldham Athletic in midweek. Jack Diamond kept his place meaning Chris Maguire dropped to the bench for Aiden McGeady to return, while upfront Charlie Wyke was favoured to Will Grigg who also found himself on the bench at Sincil Bank.
Urgent pressing and fast transitions
Perhaps the most obvious change Lee Johnson has made during his short time on Wearside has been the increased intensity with which his side is pressing the opposition. This change is the most obvious because it is a complete contrast with the passive style of play seen under Phil Parkinson.
It would be incorrect to say that Sunderland pressed high up the pitch for the full 90 minutes. However, Charlie Wyke’s dispossessing of Joe Walsh inside the Lincoln half before crossing for Josh Scowen to shoot wide just before half time is a good example of how this was part of Lee Johnson’s game plan.
The pressing style that Sunderland did employ consistently was a sense of urgency and whole-team commitment to winning the ball back. This high-intensity pressing sometimes didn’t begin until Lincoln entered Sunderland’s half, although it was often triggered into action by Sunderland losing possession in opposition territory, always featured all of Sunderland’s front five (the lone striker, both wingers and the two centre midfielders) who were then supported by the back five (the defensive midfielder and back four) pushing up to compact the space between the lines.
A good example of this tactic, combined with the counter-pressing used as soon as Sunderland turned over possession, is shown in the image below. Charlie Wyke pressures the Lincoln defender as soon as Grant Leadbitter’s pass is cut out. This forces the Lincoln man into a long ball which sails harmlessly over the top of the Sunderland defence since Bailey Wright and Tom Flanagan have squeezed up to compress the pitch into the home side’s half.
Another part of Sunderland’s play that benefits from this intense pressing is the speed on the counter-attack. When Sunderland’s front five are all moving forward to try and win the ball back, this makes the attacking transition much quicker when the ball is finally turned over to Lee Johnson’s side.
Jack Diamond’s goal – which came from a Lincoln City corner – shows exactly how Sunderland's new manager will want his side to counter-attack. When Aiden McGeady picks up the ball just inside his own half, he is joined by all of Wyke, Scowen, Power and Diamond to take on just three Lincoln City defenders. McGeady makes the right choice by passing right to Diamond who curled home beautifully with his left foot to seal the game before half time.
Given that this tactical approach has been executed with only three or four training days so far, it’ll be interesting to watch how the team develops over the coming weeks.
If early indications are anything to go by, however, the game that Johnson has talked about in his opening days as head coach certainly seems achievable with this squad of players – and potentially a couple of January additions.