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‘What do the stats say?’ - Sunderland need a defensive overhaul in order to improve their results

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Whilst Phil Parkinson has retained faith in his back five over recent games, the last four performances haven’t been good enough and, if we’re serious about promotion, changes in personnel are required to improve our results.

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

Sunderland’s defence in need of overhaul

Sunderland have now failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their last four games, something which should concern us deeply, as we’re stuttering at precisely the wrong time, at a time when we need our defence to be at its most resolute in order to achieve promotion-winning form. I have to ask: does Phil Parkinson have any desire to make changes in personnel in order to help turn around Sunderland’s fortunes?

Previous evidence would suggest not. Parky has only tended to change up his back line in the event that injury strikes someone down, but with time running out it’s clear, to me at least, that in order for Sunderland to strengthen their foundations he’s going to either have to re-think his game-plan, or tinker with his increasingly leaky defence.

InStat Football’s BoxScore index rated Tom Flanagan as Sunderland’s worst player on Tuesday night with a score of 198. Not too far behind him were Luke O’Nien (203) and Alim Ozturk (213). This was O’Nien’s worst score since the loss away at Portsmouth at the start of February, and whilst I wouldn’t be in a rush to take one of our most industrious players out of the firing line, the evidence does suggest that he’s suffering from a combination of fatigue and the poor performances of his defensive counterparts.

In the case of Flanagan and Ozturk, it’s easier for Parkinson to make the changes necessary as he’s got two capable players in reserve who are arguably better options.

Joel Lynch might not be as comfortable in possession as Flanagan, but he is better in the air and, importantly, he’s left-footed, so his presence on the left of the three adds balance to our defence. Similarly, Tommy Smith’s vast experience as a captain in the Championship would suggest he’s capable of playing in the league above, yet he’s nowhere to be seen.

I’m a fan of Alim Ozturk, but the trends we’re seeing across his recent performances evidence that he’s a massive weak link in this side. Keeping him in the side, where he’s likely to continue to hinder us, seems nonsensical when you have players in reserve capable of performing to a higher level.

For Sunderland’s form to dramatically improve we must seek to fix our defensive frailties. Until we have a solid base to build from, we will not see an improvement in results.

It’s as simple as that.

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

Despite changing personnel, our style is predictable

Most supporters welcomed the inclusion of Antoine Semenyo and Josh Scowen into Sunderland’s starting eleven on Tuesday night. Following a string of lethargic, uninspiring performances from Lynden Gooch and George Dobson, it seemed logical to give the players we signed in January a chance to prove their worth to the side.

In fairness to both men, neither of them really let themselves down, but they also didn’t have a particularly huge impact on the way the game panned out.

As I said before, the secret to success for all teams is to find a stable defence. It allows the midfielders and attacking players to become a more positive influence on what happens in the final third which, in turn, wins you games.

So, with that in mind I’m reluctant to dish out too much criticism to individuals who weren’t able to score the goals we needed to have a chance of taking something from the game - as we can see from the below screenshot, which shows the average position of Sunderland’s players across the entirety of the game, Max Power played practically as another central defender, whilst Jordan Willis played a lot deeper than he usually would.

InStat Football

Our xG of 0.25 was pitiful, and a reminder that one of the biggest issues that has plagued Sunderland throughout this season - and, arguably, last season too - is our poor rate of chance creation. Even when we are at our best defensively, we struggle to create openings.

Our pattern and style is too predictable. The two changes in personnel could have seen Sunderland change for the better, but the fact of the matter is that in preparing for us, Bristol Rovers knew exactly how we’d play. They knew who would be stood where, who would be doing what job, and where we are most likely to try to attack.

You know that if Sunderland work the ball left, the likelihood is that Denver Hume will try and overlap and then get in behind to provide crosses into the box. The issue, however, is that he’s incredibly one-footed and the easiest way to take him out of the game is to double up or even match our system, which is exactly what Bristol did.

Semenyo might be quicker and trickier than Lynden Gooch, but he was asked to virtually play up alongside the deeper-lying striker, Lafferty, just like Gooch often does. This makes him easy to defend against as he often finds himself isolated with his back to goal when he receives the ball, lacking in the support that Maguire gets over on the right-hand side from the central midfielder, O’Nien and Jordan Willis.

We are far too easily figured out, and we’re unlikely to see a massive change in the performance trends we’re seeing between now and the end of the season unless Parky a) becomes less predictable and b) he invests fully in the players he signed to improve the team in January.

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