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Talking Tactics: The data behind Sunderland’s demolition of Crewe - what does it tell us?

Sunderland put in a complete performance in the North West to get the better of Crewe Alexandra. Here’s what the data says about our most recent victory.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

The Teams

Sunderland made just the one, enforced, change from the side that managed to come from behind to win away at Gillingham at the weekend with the suspended Elliot Embleton making way for the Aiden McGeady to return from injury. Leon Dajaku, who also returned to the squad following an injury-enforced absence, was named amongst the substitutes.

xG and Chance Creation

As the xG totals indicate, Sunderland were certainly deserved winners on Tuesday night as we finished the match with an xG of above 2, whilst we limited Crewe to a total of under 1.

Although the totals may indicate that a ‘fair’ result would have been a 2-1 win for the Red and White Army, that’s probably a slightly oversimplistic view of the xG graph. As the red line shows, Crewe actually failed to create one clear-cut chance - their best attempt only notched an xG of 0.25 - so Sunderland’s clean sheet was hardly undeserved.

In an attacking sense, the eye test probably gives Ross Stewart’s first, and Sunderland’s second, goal a significantly larger xG than the graph indicates. Add to this the fact that our first goal was an own goal, and so registers an xG of zero, and it's easy to see how a comfortable victory was well deserved.

Slight Formation Change

Although Sunderland have used what has been described as a 4-2-3-1 formation almost all season, in some games this has been more of a 4-2-2-2 shape with the number ten, most often Elliot Embleton, playing alongside Ross Stewart in a two-man frontline. This was most obvious when Nathan Broadhead started centrally against Cheltenham at the Stadium of Light in a game where the Everton loanee frequently made runs beyond Stewart in behind the opposition defence.

If the formation against Cheltenham was the closest Sunderland’s 4-2-3-1 has been to a 4-4-2, then the formation against Crewe on Tuesday night was probably the most Sunderland’s 4-2-3-1 has played like a 4-3-3.

Alex Pritchard frequently dropped deep both out of possession, in order to block passing lanes into Crewe’s holding midfielder Luke Murphy, and in possession, such as in the build-up to Sunderland’s second goal where the diminutive playmaker dropped into midfield to allow Dan Neil to make an overlapping run from which he pulled the ball back for Stewart to head home.

Although the average position graphic below once again shows Sunderland in a 4-2-4 shape, the advanced positioning of Dan Neil slightly ahead of Luke O’Nien does show how he sometimes pushed up alongside Pritchard to create a central overload, whilst the average positioning fails to account for Pritchard’s positioning off the ball where he dropped onto Crewe’s defensive midfielder.

Overloading the right-side

Lining up for Crewe at left-wing-back was a man familiar to Sunderland, in the form of Callum McFadzean. The former Plymouth player was consistently a defensive liability for Lee Johnson’s side last year and we clearly decided to target that side of the home team’s defence in order to create chances of our own.

Aiden McGeady and Dennis Cirkin were relatively quiet from their left-sided positions as a result, but the overloading of McFadzean’s side - shown above by the drifting of Ross Stewart out towards that side in order to join right-winger O’Brien and overlapping full-back Winchester - did help to create the second goal and O’Brien’s good run to get inside McFadzean at the back post meant he should have ended up on the scoresheet, rather than in the crowd.


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