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Talking Tactics: What went wrong for Sunderland at Pompey? We look at the data...

Sunderland suffered a humbling defeat away to Portsmouth on Saturday - and here’s why the weather can’t take all of the blame for the Lads’ poor defensive performance...

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Despite putting in the most complete performance of the season so far against Cheltenham in midweek, Lee Johnson made a few changes to the side that started that game. Nathan Broadhead and Aiden McGeady both dropped out due to injury, allowing Leon Dajaku to make his first league start for the club, and for Elliot Embleton to return to the Sunderland forward line. The only other change was the return of Dennis Cirkin, who probably got the nod over Niall Huggins due to his greater physicality given the apocalyptic conditions.

Although the return of Embleton indicated a change back to a 4-2-3-1 formation from the 4-2-2-2 that was used in midweek, in truth. Embleton has constantly taken up positions alongside Stewart when in possession - so whether we want to label our shape a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 the difference in shape when using Embleton or Broadhead with Stewart is negligible.

Despite the scoreline, the game was a pretty even one in-between both boxes, with both side’s passing stats depleted by the state of the pitch meaning that even comfortable winners Portsmouth never achieved full control of proceedings. What made the difference was Sunderland’s abhorrent defending for all four goals, and the weather can’t take the blame for this. Portsmouth created, or were gifted, four good chances during the ninety minutes whilst the away side struggled to create anything of note.

The surface water clearly stopped Sunderland from implementing their desired plan in possession, but a more streetwise side would have concentrated on not giving soft goals away and hoping for the opposition to make a mistake at the other end. In games like Saturday’s, a goalless draw would have been a good result, a four-nil defeat was significantly worse.

Goal 1 - Marcus Harness - 19 minutes

Portsmouth’s opener is probably the goal that Lee Johnson needs to take the most blame for, since many of the mistakes made during its build-up are a direct result of the spaces left by Sunderland’s choice of formation.

Defending in a 4-4-2 against Portsmouth’s 3-4-3 with a narrow attacking trio and wingbacks that made it easy for the home side to outnumber our back four by attacking with a front five.


The Portsmouth wingbacks created problems from the start of the move, as goalkeeper Bazunu played a long ball out to left-wing-back Lee Brown (3) who is allowed to play a one-two with Ronan Curtis (11) since neither Carl Winchester (15) nor Leon Dajaku (7) fully committed to marking either player.

Here is where Winchester’s inexperience as a full-back shows slightly. A more experienced player would either fully commit to marking Brown, and call for a centre back or midfielder to drop in or across and track Curtis or track the run of Curtis themselves and pull Dajaku back to mark Brown. The latter situation is probably what happens if Lynden Gooch had been playing on the right, and his inclusion would have allowed Sunderland to match the Pompey wingbacks when we didn’t have possession of the football.


After Brown is released by Curtis down the left, the next problem for Sunderland comes as Marcus Harness (10) comes into a central position from his starting spot to the right of the Pompey front three. Cirkin (17) actually anticipates the danger posed by Harness well and tracks his run. However, like Winchester earlier in the move, the left back never gets touch-tight to the goalscorer and, even when Harness has to take an extra touch to control the ball Cirkin is not tight enough to make a block or tackle before the ball nestles in the bottom corner of Thorben Hoffmann’s net.


Goal 2 - Lee Brown - 33 minutes

After his positioning at left wing-back caused Sunderland problems in the build up to Portsmouth’s first goal, Lee Brown managed to get on the scoresheet himself by tapping home the home team’s second of the afternoon.


Luke O’Nien (13) failed to clear and instead turned back into trouble and gave the ball away to Ronan Curtis (11) on the left-wing. It wasn’t the afternoon to try and play through the opposition’s counter-press, and Sunderland were punished for O’Nien’s mistake one-third into the match.


After the turnover of possession, Harness was left with acres of space down the left, and John Marquis (9) got in front of Bailey Wright (26) at the front post and did well to lay the ball off to Lee Brown (3) who was again unmarked by Carl Winchester (15). For both of the first two goals, Sunderland simply allowed Portsmouth’s attackers too much time and space in the box.

Goal 3 - John Marquis - 45 minutes

Just like the first two goals, Sunderland also can’t really blame the conditions for conceding a poor goal from a set piece just before half time. The ball did hold up in the corner slightly for Ronan Curtis, allowing him to get his body in between the ball and Carl Winchester, but Sunderland’s right back didn’t need to put in a frustrated tackle when the Portsmouth winger had nowhere but to corner to go.

From the resulting free kick, John Marquis (9) again found space at the front post as he made a clever run to get away from Corry Evans (4) before beating Dennis Cirkin (17) to the ball as the former Spurs left back again failed to get tight enough to the Portsmouth danger man. Saturday was a difficult afternoon for both the Sunderland full backs, however I do think that a man of Corry Evans’ experience should have done more to stop Marquis, who is clearly Pompey’s most dangerous player from set pieces, from getting away from him. Like Cirkin, Evans failed to get touch-tight to his man and the game was out of sight.

Goal 4 - John Marquis - 61 minutes

Portsmouth’s fourth and final goal was probably the most weather-affected of the goals on the day, with players on both sides running past a ball that had stopped dead in Fratton Park Pond.

However, Sunderland again found their defensive players way out of position and allowed the home side to get shots off from dangerous positions inside the penalty area.

After a half-time switch to a back three, Sunderland should have been able to counter Portsmouth’s front five with greater ease than in the opening 45 minutes. However, this was clearly not the case.

First of all, the massive gap between left-centre back Callum Doyle (6) and left-wing-back Dennis Cirkin (17) meant that Corry Evans (4) dropped into the defensive line instead of Doyle going out to challenge the overlapping Romeo (15). This left a massive gap on the edge of the Sunderland penalty area, since half of the midfield duo was now out of position.

The space on the edge of the area was only worsened by Luke O’Nien’s (13) strange positioning between his centre-backs. In the first half, this position would have made sense to create a back five for Sunderland, but with three central defenders already on the pitch and in the penalty area O’Nien’s role should have been to win any second balls on the edge of the area.

This meant that, when Winchester failed to clear properly - something which was entirely down to the state of the pitch - the ball fell to Joe Morrell (21) on the edge of the box without any of the Sunderland midfield in sight.

He had all the time in the world to pick out John Marquis (9) who managed to get goal-side of Callum Doyle (6) who, despite getting tight enough to the Portsmouth striker was always likely to lose out in the air with Marquis positioned on his back.


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