Sunderland’s victory away to Oxford United was a scrappy affair, but the positive result added more credence to the claim that Phil Parkinson’s side are generating the momentum required to challenge for automatic promotion.
Throughout the game, Sunderland were resilient in defence and played the conditions perfectly. After bagging an early goal, the Lads were able to work as a compact unit to nullify Oxford’s attacking intent and were even arguably more effective with the ball when in possession.
Moving forwards, Parkinson will be thrilled with the victory and so will his side as they chase a place at the top of League One.
Tight Margins & Epic Defence
In terms of battles all over the pitch, Sunderland and Oxford competed for 179 challenges during Saturday's match, though Sunderland just edged Oxford out by winning 51% of the game’s clashes. It’s the minutiae that wins tight games, and Sunderland’s effort and desire got them over the line.
Defensively, Sunderland were slightly more active than Oxford, winning 59 of their 91 attempted defensive challenges (65%) - Oxford won 55 of their 88 attempts (63%). However, in general, the game was an incredibly tight affair.
The one statistic that sticks out, however, is the fact that Sunderland were much better at intercepting Oxford’s attempts at moving the ball into dangerous areas. Sunderland made 63 interceptions, 15 of which were in the opponent’s half, while Oxford were only able to intercept 40 of Sunderland’s passes, and only 5 of those were in Sunderland’s half.
Tom Flanagan made 8 interceptions, Bailey Wright made 5, and Jordan Willis also made 8 - Sunderland’s three central defenders are looking increasingly comfortable in their positioning, and their ability to snuff out danger is a huge part of why this Sunderland defence is so impressive.
Furthermore, while both Denver Hume and Max Power made 3 important interceptions during the match, Luke O’Nien and George Dobson were on top form with 10 each. The duo’s energy and desire to harass the opposition is a huge reason why Oxford simply couldn’t fashion enough good openings to trouble Sunderland’s goal.
Sunderland’s work rate, defensive solidity, and concentration levels have looked top-notch over the last couple of month’s - in a tight game like this past weekend’s, this side’s ability to frustrate the opposition when out of possession is a huge reason why we’re able to pick up points against promotion rivals.
Quality of Possession
Karl Robinson’s assessment of the game was an interesting take that was discussed in this week’s Talking Points feature:
They won it in 90 seconds, but we dominated for 90 minutes.
I thought in every area we dominated.
Oxford did have the lion’s share of possession with 55% in the first half and 63% in the second; however, for all of Oxford’s possession, Robinson’s side really didn’t do a huge amount with the ball at their feet - and the stats back that claim up.
Oxford move the ball around the pitch quite nicely, and their 546 passes with 80% accuracy confirm that. The issue with Oxford’s play, though, was their lack of cutting edge quality - especially when compared to Sunderland’s attempts with far less possession.
For example, although Oxford tried 394 attacking passes with a 73% completion rate, they only managed 16 accurate passes into Sunderland’s box out of 45 attempts (36%). Sunderland, on the other hand, only tried 19 passes into Oxford’s box, but were successful with 10 of their attempts (53%) - and this was with only 186 accurate attacking passes throughout the game. Chris Maguire in particular did a great job of linking Sunderland’s play into the Oxford box.
And for all the possession Oxford had, and all the passes they made, the two teams really weren’t too far apart in terms of their ability to get the ball into good areas from out wide, too. Oxford tried 17 crosses with 4 finding a teammate (24%), while Sunderland also managed 4 accurate crosses from 8 attempts (50%).
Finally, and perhaps the most important statistic from Saturday in terms of passing is the number of key passes in the game. A key pass is:
A pass to a partner who is in a goal scoring position (one-one-one, empty net, etc.) and a pass to a partner that “cuts off” the whole defensive line of the opponent’s team (3 or more players) in the attacking phase.
During Saturday’s game, Oxford tried 8 key passes and were successful with 4; Sunderland tried 7 key passes and were also accurate with 4 of them.
In all, the argument can be made that for all of Oxford’s good passing, they lacked genuine quality in attack when it mattered, and that Sunderland’s effectiveness with less possession makes their victory far less shocking than Robinson suggested.
Praise for O’Nien & Dobson
While Tom Flanagan deserves a pat on the back for a great defensive performance, Luke O’Nien and George Dobson deserve serious praise for their overall performances this past weekend.
Defensively, both players were thoroughly impressive. George Dobson made the most tackles of the entire team, attempting 5 and winning 4 - while O’Nien tried 4 and won 3. As noted earlier, Dobson and O’Nien were also tied in first place for the number of interceptions - both made 10.
The energy and determination to battle so effectively for almost 100 minutes is a massive positive for this Sunderland side, and in these two young players Sunderland have a couple of real gems that are giving their all for the team.
Furthermore, in an attacking sense, both players were very positive at the weekend. Dobson was successful with 31 of his 34 attempted passes (91%), and O’Nien tried to make a whopping 50 passes, with 36 of them finding a teammate (72%). In terms of passes defined as attacking ones, Dobson was successful with 22 out of 25 attempts whereas O’Nien tried 40 and was accurate with 26.
Dobson’s accuracy suggests that the midfielder has adapted his game slightly after a few disappointing performances - something that’s immensely important for young, developing players. O’Nien’s willingness to try and move the ball - especially in attacking areas - shows just how important he is to Sunderland’s buildup play. He links very well with Chris Maguire, and this is quickly becoming a key area for Sunderland’s attacking plans.
Interestingly, both players made one key pass in the game and both were successful in their attacking actions, too. Dobson was involved in 70 attacking actions and was successful with 62 of his attempts. O’Nien, on the other hand, tried an incredible 91 attacking actions, with 67 of them being successful.
There’s a lot of information to digest here, but ultimately the numbers show two young players giving their all in both defence and attack. Sunderland under Parkinson are a team willing to give their all across the entire pitch - Dobson and O’Nien perfectly encapsulated that desire to win this past weekend. Consistency will now be key.