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Talking Tactics: Sunderland’s fluid formation leads to dominant home performance

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Phil Parkinson’s tactical approach is getting the best out of this side, but two anchors at either end of the pitch provide the support Sunderland need to flourish.

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

A quick glance at the average position map of Sunderland’s starting eleven at the weekend shows that the shape of Sunderland’s side looked unconventional to say the least.

‘Centre backs’ Tom Flanagan and Jordan Willis are situated on the same latitude as centre midfielders Dobson and Power, with wing backs Hume and O’Nien playing alongside Gooch and Maguire.

Put simply, Sunderland were so dominant on Saturday afternoon that they played with one defender, Ozturk, while the rest of the team looked to create overloads - especially down the flanks.

Average Position of Sunderland’s Players vs Bristol Rovers
Instat Football

This is shown most clearly by the statistics behind Jordan Willis’ performance, something which is unsurprising given both his pace and the fact that he is right footed playing on the right-hand side means he is the perfect fit for Parkinson’s overlapping centre back/false full back role.

Looking at Willis’ pass distribution gives a perfect insight into how Sunderland used the fluid nature of their system to create overloads down the right-wing. Most of Sunderland’s attacks started with Ozturk as the deepest player, who was the player Willis most frequently received the ball from with 11 passes received over the 90 minutes. Then, the three options down the right flank with which Willis interchanged passes with when creating these overloads became clear.

Dobson as the right-sided midfielder often dropped into the right-back zone to give Willis the option of a simple ball inside – the pair exchanged 15 passes on Saturday afternoon. Further forward, Maguire and O’Nien also interchanged well with one offering a longer ball down the right wing, and the other giving Willis an option short down the right flank.

The number of options Willis had when on the ball was staggering, and it is all because of his freedom to step out with the ball. Furthermore, the fluidity of the entire team meant that Sunderland not only controlled possession but also threatened time and time again through the game that they were unlucky not to be leading in earlier.

Jordan Willis’ pass distribution shows how Parkinson uses his wide defenders to create overloads down the flanks
Instat Football

However, just as Alim Ozturk was an anchor at one end of the pitch, Charlie Wyke operatex as a sort of anchor at the other. This position helps to explain why he seemingly never gets much praise from those outside of Sunderland’s management, and why he continues to be picked ahead of Kyle Lafferty to play up front.

Put simply, Charlie Wyke is the Alim Ozturk of centre forwards. Limited, static, League One? Absolutel. But also an important and often underappreciated cog in what has become a well-oiled machine.

Just as Ozturk allows the two players flanking him – Flanagan and Willis – to roam forward and contribute to Sunderland’s attacking play, Wyke also operates in a similar way acting as a backboard for Sunderland’s more talented attacking players to interchange passes with, use as a decoy, or generally challenge for hopeless aerial balls in order to increase the chances of Sunderland winning second balls – even if Wyke is often unable to win the first.

This point is often the reason why Wyke doesn’t seem to come across very well when looking for a high-success rate in the stats. His job isn’t really to win the challenges but to merely be a nuisance by making opposition defenders make clearances under pressure, which then creates chances for Sunderland to regain possession and attack most frequently through Gooch and Maguire.

This is where the former Bradford striker’s worth becomes clear when it is noted he attempted more challenges than any other Sunderland player with 27, and only Luke O’Nien with 21 attempted over 20 challenges in the 90 minutes.

Of course in an ideal world Sunderland would have a striker who both attempted these challenges and had a higher success rate, and Wyke’s distinct lack of a goal threat in and around the box is another part of his game which could be improved. However, when comparing Wyke with Lafferty, the former’s ability to be the Ozturk of the strikers could be the reason we have seen Parkinson keep faith with Sunderland’s number nine.

Charlie Wyke attempted more challenges than any other Sunderland player against Bristol Rovers
Instat Football