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Talking Tactics: An in-depth look at how Lee Johnson could set up his Sunderland side

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Phil Butler takes an in-depth look at how new boss Lee Johnson likes his teams to play football, and ponders whether Sunderland’s current squad is capable of carrying out his philosophy.

New Sunderland Manager Press Conference Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Lee Johnson’s Tactics

After just a few hours in charge, there is no surprise that Lee Johnson struggled to get his ideas across to his Sunderland players in time for Saturday’s game against Wigan Athletic.

I was slightly surprised to see him choose a 4-3-3 formation instead of his preferred 4-4-2, but this did not mean we couldn’t learn anything about what the former Bristol City boss plans to do with his Sunderland side.


High Pressing

Before Wigan scored, it was clear that the new manager had instructed his player to press high up the pitch and to counter-press when they lost possession of the ball, a tactic which is designed to suffocate the opposition and allow Sunderland to produce wave after wave of attack - something which we have sorely lacked under Phil Parkinson.

Whilst this is a tactic that can work in a 4-3-3 formation, Liverpool certainly manage to make it work in that system, it only does so if the three forwards can play very narrow so that they are near the ball when it is lost and can quickly swarm the opposition ball-carrier.

In Sunderland’s 4-3-3 against Wigan, despite Grigg and Maguire being willing runners, Sunderland lacked the high full backs to keep their wingers narrow and overwhelm Wigan’s defence.

The 4-4-2 shape used by Johnson at Ashton Gate allowed his strikers to man mark the opposition centre backs, or for one forward to mark an opposition’s single pivot.
Bristol City FC YouTube

Bodies in the box

Another clear tactic from the first spell of the game was the willingness to get bodies in the box. On Saturday, this took the form of both Max Power and Josh Scowen playing as “free 8s” and getting into the box alongside Will Grigg.

However, this left Grant Leadbitter as the only man in midfield, and meant that he, along with Wright and Flanagan, looked vulnerable to Wigan’s counter-attacks. This did change in the second half when Max Power played deeper alongside Leadbitter, but this meant one less player was in the box and the home side looked less threatening as a result.

The image below shows how Lee Johnson solved this problem in his 4-4-2 at Bristol City. Baring in mind this is a game in which City scored three goals with only 33% possession, four players are in the danger area of the box, with the winger and full back also in line of attack on the right flank. It is important to pay particular attention to Jay Dasilva (number three) at the back post, who flicking the ball back across goal for Nakhi Wells (number 20) to score from close range. Dasilva’s position from left back is similar to the positions Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume can find themselves in when playing at wing back, and Johnson will clearly be encouraging Hume especially to be a threat at the back post.

The signing of another wing back in Jack Hunt - the player just about to cross in the image below - changed the players who Johnson puts in the box. Previously, Bristol City’s right back was a more defensive player, with Bailey Wright and Tomas Kalas used there on occasion. This meant that one of the centre midfielders had more license to make late runs into the box, as Scowen and Power did on Saturday knowing that the cautious positioning of the right back meant four players were guarding against the counter-attack.

The build up to Nakhi Wells’ goal for Bristol City against Derby earlier in the year shows how Johnson likes to get “at least four” players in the opposition box.
Bristol City FC YouTube

Tactical Flexibility

One part of Lee Johnson’s management that we didn’t see on Saturday was his tactical flexibility, especially in regard to the roles give to his wingers and forwards. Whilst I have already mentioned the tactical changes he sometimes made at right back, and the impact that had on his midfield, in general the back four and centre midfield played a similar role in his side.

On the other hand, the front four players constantly switched roles and are the reason Johnson was known for his tactical tinkering during his time at Ashton Gate. Although the roles given to Benik Afobe and Famara Diédhiou show a preference for a mobile focal point up front, the video below shows how Johnson was happy to play with two “false 9s” on occasion where he wanted to crowd the midfield.

This should be of particular interest to Sunderland fans, who currently have a team without any promotion-quality strikers and with a number of different attacking midfield options.

Lynden Gooch, if not needed to provide width on the right, can easily be seen to play as one of these false 9s, as could Chris Maguire or Elliot Embleton, who went up front after coming off the bench on Saturday.


Sunderland’s Squad

At first glance, Sunderland's squad actually looks to have pretty decent strength in depth for Lee Johnson's 4-4-2 formation - especially considering this is a squad formed with the intention of playing 3-5-2.

The lopsided nature of Sunderland's fullbacks makes it pretty easy to see how Johnson could recreate the balance of his Bristol City back four, before the signing of Jack Hunt. Especially with the most attacking right back Luke O'Nien out until the new year, Conor McLaughlin and Dion Sanderson will both fit the role of defensive full back pretty well. Contrast this with the options at left back, where Denver Hume seems a perfect fit for the role filled by Joe Bryan and Jay Dasilva for Johnson's City and Callum McFadzean was also brought to the club to play as a wing back.

Centre back cover looks pretty weak beyond the obvious first choice pairing of Jordan Willis and Bailey Wright, which makes it even more baffling that Parkinson persisted with a 3 man defence for so long even if it did suit Tom Flanagan.

In midfield, Sunderland have a decent mix of players to make a good League One partnership, even if their options lack the goal scoring threat needed to make a three-man midfield work. Grant Leadbitter and Dan Neil both fit the role of midfield passers, whilst George Dobson gives the option of playing more of a ball-winner in the deep-lying role. The former Walsall midfielder could be a major beneficiary of Johnson's appointment if Grant Leadbitter's legs suffer from the switch to a two-man midfield.

In the box-to-box role, Josh Scowen is probably the current first choice given that he has worked with Johnson before at Barnsley, but Max Power showed in his first season and in flashes since that he has the ability to perform in this role for a promotion-winning league one club and is another that should suit playing in a two-man midfield.

The attacking roles are where things get interesting, mainly due to the former Oldham Athletic boss' tendency to switch the roles of his wingers and strikers based on form, fitness and opposition.

Whilst Will Grigg, Charlie Wyke and Danny Graham are all out-and-out forwards, and Jack Diamond and Aiden McGeady are both out-and-out wide players, the rest of the attacking players in the squad can realistically be asked to play in wide midfield or up front.

Chris Maguire and Elliot Embleton probably find their most natural position to be as alternatives for Aiden McGeady, but both will surely find game time as a second striker, or indeed as one of two false nines. Aiden O'Brien has played on the left and up front in a 4-4-2 at Millwall, whilst Lynden Gooch stated his preferred role is as close to the goal as possible but his pace and ability to stretch play will probably be required on the right of midfield, especially with Luke O'Nien's absence.

Lee Johnson was right to make complaints about Sunderland's lack of pace to stretch the game, but once Gooch is fit again this problem starts to resolve itself. However, Gooch's return does not give any pace to Sunderland's strikers be they Grigg, Wyke or one of the more unconventional options and since Lee Johnson sometimes used two pacey forwards as a pair at Ashton Gate, I wouldn't be surprised to see a new centre forward on the club's shopping list once again in January.

Is this the sort of team we can see Johnson line up with in the future?
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