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Sunderland’s style of play is effective only against poorer opposition

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When they’re bad, we’re great. When they’re harder to break down, we’re easier to predict. Alex McCain gives his thoughts on Sunderland’s play-style, and why it costs us in the bigger games.

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

There have been plenty of games this season (post-December, of course) that have been a real joy to watch. Games in which Sunderland have utterly decimated teams in the first half with a high-press and wide-pass culminating in devastating attacking movements from the flanks.

Such a relentless tempo has ended games before they’ve even started: Wycombe, Rochdale, Lincoln and Tranmere’s games at the Stadium of Light attesting to that.

The blueprint for those successes has been there for all to see and it doesn’t necessarily take the microscope of statistical analysis to comprehend. Phil Parkinson’s footballing philosophy, much like the tactical ensemble of his predecessor Jack Ross, greatly favours Sunderland moving the ball out to the wings as soon as possible in order to orchestrate attacks from there.

Seldom do we see the ball played through the middle; Denver Hume is the only member of the team who actively chooses to do so - and even then he cuts inside from the flank, where the ball was directed initially.

Scunthorpe v Sunderland: Leasing.com Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

This approach to offensive play should hardly come as a surprise, given the nature of the players Parkinson adamantly and resolutely sticks with each week.

The natural attacking intent of Hume and Luke O’Nien make them ideal candidates for the wing-back role on their respective sides, their pace and energy allowing them to fluidly combine with their corresponding wingers to play the overlap and convolute the opposition’s full-backs. We’ve unlocked many defences that way this season.

However, when we’re faced with more talented teams (the term, of course, being relative to the general standard of League One) we seem to dribble into a brick wall, no matter how many times we look for the overlapping defender. We drew a blank away to Portsmouth and were professionally beaten by two goals to nil, we were frustrated for ninety-two minutes against a shamelessly conniving Fleetwood and - just recently - we were kept out by Coventry.

Results such as the aforementioned are a far cry from the comfortable 3-0s secured against Rochdale and Bristol Rovers, to say nothing of the comfortable decimation of then-table-toppers Wycombe. So how do we go so quickly from one extreme to the other?

How does free-flowing football and an abundance of goals come to a grinding halt seemingly inconsistent with the increase in quality of the opponent?

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

To give you the abridged version, I fully believe it is the case that our high-tempo, flank-based attacking philosophy is so good against most teams that it doesn’t even matter that there isn’t really a Plan B - and the consequences are therefore quite obvious when we play a team that knows a thing or two about defending.

Let’s take Rochdale for our first example: when they played us here at the Stadium of Light they were absolutely abject. A team half-renowned for a passing game many would consider far too ambitious for this division, Brian Barry-Murphy quickly learned how abruptly that can backfire when Sunderland aggressively pressed and used the subsequently garnered possession to utilise the full width of the pitch to take part the Dale just as they tried to leave their final third.

A brace from Gooch, an own-goal and an industrious performances from himself, O’Nien, Hume and co. ensured that the home side were three goals to the good by the thirty-second minute and - had Rochdale not resorted to hitting it long from goal kicks - another five or six could have easily followed.

It’s probably worth mentioning Wycombe too, but rather than haphazardly attempt to paint a picture with words, you can just watch (probably re-watch, let’s be honest) this incisive bit of attacking play down the right-hand side.

Unfortunately, the narrative has a tendency to change drastically when we have to play someone who’s... well... good?

Coventry, who at the time of writing this were our most recent opposition, were certainly no mugs. Beating us 1-0 at St. Andrews, an early goal capitalised on Black Cat complacency and despite us then having a greater share of possession, nine shots on target and two off, a resilient Sky Blue defence ensured there was no way back.

Neither Hume nor Gooch had the best game - and I reckon that’s because teams with full-backs competent enough to stop them know that if they do whatever they can to ensure those lads don’t play well, a lot of Sunderland’s attacks will stagnate immediately. Sadly, that seemed to be precisely what was on Fankaty Dabo’s mind as he used his capabilities to either close down Gooch or put in a well-timed tackle to halt Hume in his tracks.

O’Nien and Maguire didn’t fare much better down the other side too, tight marking from the right-back and right sided centre-back meant that neither had adequate room to manoueveur, making overlapping runs and the creation of extra space to pass into became a difficult commodity to come by.

This, on the whole, was also more-or-less how Fleetwood set up, minus the time-wasting and sarky comments from our mate Joey. It’s obviously no coincidence that both Fleetwood and Coventry are sides in good form and with good defensive records.

If Sunderland’s wide players can be neutralised by talented opposition defenders, this creates a scenario where we constantly attempt to run a channel we’re anticipated to run, meaning we’re bound to run out of ideas. Every team we play doing their homework is likely aware of this, but our players are talented enough to ensure that, even if Southend United or AFC Wimbledon know where and how we’re going to hit them, it doesn’t matter because they can’t handle our overload anyway. Your Fleetwoods, Coventries and Portsmouths, on the other hand, are able to overcome our very exploitable trait of living and dying by Plan A.

Coventry City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - St Andrew’s Trillion Trophy Stadium Photo by Nigel French/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

So, how does Parkinson rectify this? If, indeed, he intends to?

Well, playing a few balls through the middle might be a nice start. However, the problem which would arise there - simply put - would come from the team’s capacity, not its willing. Parkinson clearly has a lot of time for big Charlie Wyke, but his physicality and aerial presence leave quite a bit to be desired, meaning he often struggles to be the Target Man he is evidently envisioned to be.

While we’ve seen Wyke drop back to win the ball and bring teammates into play on occasion, we’re yet to see him spearhead an attack from marauding midfielders or wingers (other than Hume) cutting inside before they reach the edge of the box.

I’m not sure where exactly Parkinson intends to go from here; the recruitments made in the January window give us options with fundamental differences to the ones we already have, such as a more defensively oriented left-back in Declan John and the more imposing figure up front of Kyle Lafferty, but whether we’ll see changes to the system on the whole as a means to adapt or whether we’ll continue to sharpen the blade that has speared more sides than not is, ultimately, up to the manager.

There are ten games to go. Let’s just hope - whatever happens - we get it right.