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‘What Do The Stats Say?’ - The secret behind Sunderland’s attacking success v Rochdale explained

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We all know that our defending has improved immeasurably since Phil Parkinson arrived at the club, but what is the secret behind Sunderland’s attacking prowess?

Sunderland v Rochdale - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Who were Sunderland’s best performers?

According to InStat’s boxscore index rating - which takes all aspects of each individual’s play into consideration throughout the duration of a game - Lynden Gooch, Luke O’Nien and Chris Maguire were Sunderland’s top formers by a considerable margin.

That won’t really come as surprise to anyone, but it’s true that the trio were integral to all of Sunderland’s good play in what was a fantastic all-round team performance from Phil Parkinson’s side.

Utility man Luke O’Nien in particular was at the hub of just about everything, as he is often. Of the top five most frequent passing combinations between Sunderland players, O’Nien was involved in three of them - he and Chris Maguire linked up more than any other pairing (34 combinations), whilst the former Wycombe man also acted as the bridge between defence and midfield in his hook-ups with George Dobson (26) and Jordan Willis (27).

The central midfielder-turned right wing back is the true definition of a team player.

InStat Football

How did we fare up against Rochdale?

Sunderland were simply sharper, fitter and more ‘at it’ than their opponents from the off, which is why we took a three goal lead as quickly as we did and why, despite dropping our intensity in the second half, Rochdale weren’t able to match us.

The speed of our passing and our attacking intent was simply too hot to handle for Rochdale, who gave it their best effort but didn’t have the quality of player required in their side to successfully challenge what Sunderland had to throw at them.

For context, our lowest-rated starter was George Dobson with 242. In contrast, InStat have Eoghan O’Connell as Rochdale’s top performer with an index rating of 238 - lower than any of the Sunderland players that started the game.

Going into the game we knew that, despite their flaws, Rochdale would look to dominate possession. Sunderland knew they’d have to match their opponents and restrict the amount of time they had on the ball - and, as Steve Parkin said himself, we carried out our game-plan to perfection. Despite generally not being particularly possession-based in our style, Sunderland ended the game with a 51% share of the ball.

The game was won by half time, and it was brilliant to see the players address something that has been nagging some supporters - myself included - for a while now.

We peppered their box with crosses and, as a result, managed to get our shots away - five of our ten attempted shots were on target in the opening 45 minutes, showing that we’re capable of overwhelming teams when we focus our attacks down the flanks and create overloads that their defenders simply aren’t capable of dealing with.

Rochdale’s trend of doing very little with the ball when they have it continued once again - just two of their 77 attempted attacks led to a shot, showing that despite being good on the ball, Brian Barry-Murphy’s side lack end product. In contrast, thirteen of Sunderland’s 82 attacks led to us attempting shots. Despite having a fantastic goalscorer in Ian Henderson, Dale might have to find another, more basic way of playing if they want to pull further away from the relegation zone before the season ends.

InStat Football

Defensive assurance gave us solid foundations

All the data that I displayed before Tuesday’s match here pointed to the fact that Rochdale were going to have to be really on their game if they were going to trouble Sunderland. As mentioned earlier, they struggle to convert their decent spells of possession into successful attacking moves, so everything pointed to our central defenders having a relatively easy evening - providing, of course, they remained focused.

Our back three soaked up the little amount of pressure that Rochdale did place on them - their only clear chance came in the 81st minute when Ian Henderson lifted the ball over Jon McLaughlin’s head and onto the roof of the net. That aside we were comfortable - in particular, Tom Flanagan and Bailey Wright defended soundly.

InStat Football

Taking advantage of Rochdale’s weak left-hand side

In the last two games Lynden Gooch has played closely to Charlie Wyke, effectively as another centre forward (or as a nine, as Phil Parkinson called it) whilst the majority of our play has been focused down the right-hand side. The foursome of George Dobson, Jordan Willis - who plays almost as a right back, with Flanagan and Wright acting as the sitting defenders - Luke O’Nien and Chris Maguire are integral to our best attacking play, and are a big reason why we see so many of our goals come from that side of the pitch.

Rochdale’s left-sided duo of Rhys Norrington-Davies and Stephen Dooley were overwhelmed and, without the protection of the missing Rathbone and Camps they were completely overwhelmed.

This will be a key component for Sunderland and will likely dictate how much success we have in the remaining games we have left this season. By creating overloads that opposition teams simply cannot cope with we’re forcing them to play to our tune, to our rules, and it’s working to great effect.

At this level the combination of Willis’ explosive pace and athleticism, O’Nien’s sharpness and willingness to work for the team, Maguire’s ingenuity and Dobson’s passing is almost impossible to deal with.

InStat Football