One of the biggest concerns shown in Sunderland’s data so far this season has been in that whilst our defensive record has improved, we don’t create enough chances, get enough shots on target or score enough goals.
Having scored 38 goals from 29 games, Phil Parkinson’s side are sat right in the middle of the table when it comes to goals scored - a whopping 22 less than Peterborough at the top. Tonight’s opponents Rochdale, like Sunderland, haven’t been particularly prolific - they’ve scored 35 goals from 30 games, though for a side who play decent football and many predicted they would struggle, that’s not too bad.
One thing the data does tell us is that Sunderland come alive as the first half kicks on, with a whopping 14 of our goals scored between the 15th and 30th minute - that’s more than any other side in the division. Rochdale will have to be on guard and ensure that they don’t run out of steam early doors, or we’ll be ready to pounce.
This is where there’s a huge discrepancy between the two sides - Sunderland have the best defence in the division and have conceded just 26 goals, whilst Rochdale have the fourth worst defensive record in the league having conceded 48 goals.
What does this tell us? Well, it seems pretty obvious, but we’ve got to get more shots away against them than we usually would. Frequent readers of this website will note that it’s often pointed out that the one big issue Sunderland have when it comes to improving their fortunes is in the amount of shots on goal we have.
We know that we can rely on our defence to be largely resilient, and we know that Rochdale have one of the leakiest back lines in the league, so let’s have a proper go at them and look to expose that as often as we can.
In terms of goal difference, Sunderland rank fairly highly. Rochdale, as you can imagine, do not. What stands out to me is that in the periods that Sunderland are at their most prolific, Rochdale are at their worst. Between the 15th and 30th minute Sunderland have a +7 goal difference, whilst Rochdale have a -6 goal difference. Then, in the final 15 minutes of games, Sunderland have a +8 goal difference, whilst Rochdale have a -8 goal difference.
What should Sunderland be wary of?
Everyone knows that Rochdale play some pretty stuff - they practically played Sunderland off the park down at their place earlier in the season, and really caught the eye with their possession-based brand of football - but does the data back that up?
Indeed it does. Whilst the Dale are struggling at the wrong end of the table, and are at around lower-midtable when it comes to goals scored, they’re second only to Doncaster when it comes to ‘average number of passes in goal-scoring attacks’ - i.e., most of the goals that they do score come as a result of an impressive passage of play, with a large number of passes in the build up before the ball hits the back of the net.
Dale are also top of the table when it comes to ball possession - no other team in League One sees as much of the ball than they do, though Sunderland aren’t far behind.
Sunderland, therefore, have to be patient when Rochdale do have the ball. They want to draw you in and play it around you, so pressing from the front and pushing them back into their own half of the pitch could prove crucial. They aren’t a particularly impressive attacking outfit, but failing to respect their ability on the ball could become our downfall if we aren’t careful.
And, of course, it goes without saying, but we’ll have to keep an eye on Ian Henderson. He’s the best attacker in Rochdale’s team and, with a combined 15 goals and assists so far this season, he’s the one player in their ranks capable of dismantling a defence. Not too far behind him is midfielder Callum Camps, who scored against us down at their place in August. He’s got a combined 11 goals and assists so far this season - keeping the pair of them quiet could be a key ingredient in any success we have tonight.
What should Rochdale be wary of?
Whilst Sunderland rank as one of the most deadly teams in League One from set piece situations, Rochdale are one of the worst. Aside from pressing Dale into making mistakes in possession, Sunderland need to ensure they make the most of it when they’re awarded free kicks in good positions around the box, and in particular corners.
Sunderland have definitely improved from dead-ball situations since Phil Parkinson arrived at the club, so Brian Barry-Murphy’s side will have to be alert whenever they concede a corner or a free kick tonight.
Sunderland don’t have many prolific players, but Chris Maguire is ranked as the fourth most clinical attacker in the league so far this season. Clearly, the key to nulifying Sunderland’s threat is to ensure that Maguire doesn’t see much of the ball - but with a combined 17 goals and assists so far for the Lads, it’s clear that it’s not especially easy to just stop him.
Young full back Luke Matheson - who was signed by Wolves on deadline day, before being loaned back to Rochdale - is arguably the weakest link in Rochdale’s defence. He’s made 13 mistakes leading to goals conceded this season, the fourth worst of every player in the league. Perhaps, then, they key to exploiting his weaknesses is to have Denver Hume - who is third from all the players in League One when it comes to crosses attempted - exposing the space left in behind by Matheson. Doing so could result in a higher amount of crosses going into the box than we’d usually see down that side of the pitch.