Unfortunately, Sunderland’s drop off in performance - and result - which started with the draw against Doncaster last Friday continued in what was by far the worst performance by Phil Parkinson’s men since the turn of the year.
Perhaps most concerning, was that Sunderland’s defence - which I noted just two games ago as the main reason for the upturn in form - crumbled in the second half, and Portsmouth could have scored three or four and made it an even longer trip back from the South coast for the Sunderland fans.
However, the defence wasn’t the only part of Sunderland’s gameplan which didn’t turn up against Pompey, and in recent games the attack has worryingly turned back to its toothless self.
Should Ozturk and Flanagan return?
The recent drop off in defensive performances makes Parkinson’s decision to tinker with his back three slightly baffling. Jordan Willis has been the only member of that three-man defence to have played in all of Sunderland’s games this calendar year, and Alim Ozturk was looking like the perfect no-nonsense defender to line up in the middle of the back three, but was dropped for Bailey Wright - who looked short of match sharpness at Fratton Park - to take his place. Similarly, Tom Flanagan had grown into his role on the left of the back three before he was replaced by Joel Lynch who, despite being left-footed, makes Sunderland much worse in possession.
Naturally, with Lynch’s head injury on Saturday afternoon, at least one of Flanagan or Ozturk will return to the side next weekend, and with Sunderland’s recent changes in personnel clearly making them worse not better at the back Phil Parkinson must be tempted to make two changes and return to the same personel which started Sunderland’s good run of form.
Sunderland need to change from 3-4-2-1 when chasing the game
There were obvious downsides to Sunderland’s performance in both half but, perhaps worryingly, these were very different despite the home side winning each half 1-0 and scoring both goals from set pieces.
In the first half, Sunderland were able to dominate possession, but another off day for pretty much all of their attacking players meant they struggled to create any clear cut chances, and Burgess’ header from a free kick meant they went into the break needing to make a change.
However, the type of change in Sunderland’s performance wasn’t quite what Parkinson will have had in mind and the need to create just a few more clear-openings turned into a complete disasterclass, with Sunderland unable to get a foothold in the game, and Portsmouth enjoying the lion’s share of possession during the second 45.
This second half especially is where I believe Parkinson’s unwavering belief in the 3-4-2-1 sometimes gets Sunderland into trouble. When the game is evenly balanced, the three man attack can effectively press high up the pitch - as the bank of 4 in midfield and 3 at the back look to intercept when the opposition are forced to go long. However, when Sunderland are chasing the game and one of the two centre midfielders also try to join in the pressing of the front three, gaps appear all over the pitch, and it is little surprise that Portsmouth looked like scoring every time they attacked in the latter third of the game.
The problem is that if, as per the animation below, Dobson sets forward from midfied to press and is beaten that leaves Max Power as the only player in the middle of the park, with the other members of Sunderland’s ‘back seven’ then being dragged out of position to try and cover the gaping hole left in Sunderland’s midfield.
This is why most teams who encourage their entire team to press high up the pitch do so in some form of a 4-3-3 (either a 4-1-2-3 used by Liverpool or a 4-2-1-3 used by Klopp’s Dortmund). The three man midfield means that when one midfielder goes to press high up the pitch (such as Dobson in the example above) two players remain to cover the midfield, which means the defence is no longer left trying to cover gaping holes in the midfield.
Also, with Sunderland’s standard starting eleven this change of shape could be done quite easily without making a change in personel, and is a change of shape which Sunderland often find themselves in when one of the wingbacks joins the press from the 3-4-2-1.
If we take Sunderland’s starting line up as the team that played against Portsmouth at the weekend, Willis could easily move across to right back, and O’Nien into midfield with Gooch on the right and Maguire on the left to make a 4-1-2-3 with Dobson and O’Nien ahead of Power in midfield, or 4-2-1-3 with O’Nien ahead of the doule-pivot of Dobson and Power - the 4-2-1-3 being the same shape Sunderland play with when O’Nien presses from wingback (see below animation).
The options are there for Parkinson to tweak things, and Saturday should be a wake up call telling the former Bolton manager he needs to be more flexible with his in-game formations.