Overloads on the right proved successful
The success that Sunderland saw during the first half - resulting in three important goals - came largely down to the overloads we created on the right-hand side of the pitch.
Stephen Dooley and Rhys Norrington-Davies simply could not cope with the trio of Jordan Willis, Luke O’Nien and Chris Maguire who, time and again, exploited the space afforded to them in order to create numerous goal-scoring opportunities.
This isn’t a luxury often afforded to clubs in League One, though.
Not many sides possess a central defender like Willis, who has no problem getting up and down the right-hand side, possesses explosive pace, and has fantastic crossing ability. Not many sides have a grafter like Luke O’Nien, who has one of the best first touches of any player at this level and is adept at sniffing out danger when his partners maraud forward. Not many sides have a player with the craft and ingenuity of Maguire, who has the innate ability to pick out passes that nobody else can see.
Together they’re a real force, particularly against sides like Rochdale who don’t necessarily play to counter their opponents, but play in their own manner (in this case, a possession-based 4-4-2 that leaves them wide open down the sides due to a lack of cover and quality).
If only we had a left central defender just like Jordan Willis. Maybe next year!
Controlled second half approach deserves credit
I noted on social media - and in the stands, where fans seemed rather frustrated by our lack of urgency - that some supporters weren’t particularly happy with Sunderland’s approach to the second half.
We didn’t play at the same tempo as we did in the first period, noticeably slowed our game down and effectively played out the rest of the match like it was a pre-season friendly.
This, for me, was the right approach. Preserve the lead. Ensure you keep a clean sheet. Don’t push yourself too far and covet your fitness. The game was already won, so why exert ourselves further in the search for extra goals that we don’t necessarily need?
Rochdale were missing their two best central midfielders in Callum Camps and Ollie Rathbone, so the game was always going to be won in the centre of the park. And, as time wore on, their replacements were certain to tire. Nabbing a lead early on was always going to be pivotal to how the rest of the game played out - our game-plan worked a treat.
We have a massive game on Saturday and it definitely felt as though Parkinson had one eye on what is to come when his side emerged for the second half. I wouldn’t say we played poorly, but instead played in a controlled manner. We held possession of the ball far better than we usually would, and instead of pressing Rochdale high up the pitch we dropped further back.
This was good game management not only from Parkinson, but from his players.
Discipline = Clean Sheets
Sunderland’s defending has improved markedly since the turn of the year, though it would be unfair to give all the praise to the back five and goalkeeper. In fact, the secret to Sunderland’s success as a defensive unit is in the discipline of the team as a whole.
Nobody in this team shirks their off-ball responsibility, and their willingness to run and improved fitness has resulted in a run of improved defensive performances.
Rochdale only really had one good chance in the game. Otherwise, Bailey Wright marshalled the back line well. Flanked by Flanagan and Willis, the unit kept influential goalscorer Ian Henderson largely quiet. And, aided by Dobson and Power in midfield, Sunderland’s ability to sniff out danger early and win the majority of the second balls and battles in our own half ensured another clean sheet was earned and achieved.
One thing we can expect between now and the end of the season is for the players to maintain their high defensive standards. There will be slips along the way but, in the main, we can expect the majority of teams to struggle in breaking us down.