Oxford look strong down the right, but have they lost the players who made this work?
Just a quick look at Oxford’s key attacking players this season brings up two names: Tarique Fosu - who left for Brentford on transfer deadline day - and James Henry, who is The U’s top scorer with nine goals, and most productive attacking player with a further four assists in the league so far this season.
Also, perhaps unsurprisingly the team-wide data also shows that the areas Sunderland will have to be wary of on Saturday afternoon are also the areas of the pitch in which Henry operates in - the right-side and centre of the pitch.
Of Oxford’s impressive 38 goals scored from open play this season - a total which puts them behind only Peterborough in the league so far - 15 (35%) of these have come from attacks down the right-side of the pitch, and a further 13 (34%) of goals have come as a result of attacks through the middle.
Of course, James Henry on his own is clearly not the only reason why Oxford attack at their best in these areas - and thankfully for Sunderland, many of the other individuals who contributed to this in the first half of the season have since left the club.
As George Elek mentioned on the Roker Rapport Podcast during the week, attacking right back Chris Cadden was paired with a more defensive left back, making it logical for Karl Robinson’s side to attack less down the left-hand side and more down the right.
In the middle, Oxford are quite clearly a very strong side.
Cameron Brannagan, former Sunderland youngster Alex Gorrin, and The U’s other deadline day departee, Shandon Baptiste, all operated in a midfield three which could be argued was the best in League One. Now one of that trio has departed, it will be interesting to see if Oxford retain their attacking ability through the middle of the pitch and recent form suggests this has dropped off recently.
Where should Sunderland look to hurt Oxford?
At the other end of the pitch, the main stand out it how many of Oxford’s goals are conceded from attacks through the centre of the pitch, as almost half (48%) of their goals conceded from open play have come from this area - only two teams have conceded a higher percentage of their goals from this area of the pitch.
This comes as quite a surprise for a side which has such a strong centre midfield, and although Ruffles at left back is more defensive - the amount that Cadden, a natural right-winger has played at right back this season makes it a slight surprise that they haven’t been more open down to opposing teams who attack down the left. This being said, Oxford are very solid down their left flank, with only 19% of their goals coming down this side.
So, all of this means we might see a slightly different Sunderland to the side we saw against Rochdale. On Tuesday night Sunderland frequently attacked down both flanks - with Hume and O’Nien being released up against their full backs and Jordan Willis making frequent forward runs from right-centre back.
However, with Oxford so strong on the left and, with Cadden replaced by a more defensive full back, also now down the right it is likely that Willis will certainly be operating more like a standard centre back, as Sunderland look to create chances through the middle.
This means the two number tens and indeed Charlie Wyke are likely to be Sunderland's main attacking outlets, with Chris Maguire being the most natural of Sunderland's number tens looking like he'll be the key man for attacking Oxford’s main weaknesses.