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Talking Tactics: What worrying trends show up in Sunderland’s data after Rotherham defeat?

Sunderland suffered defeat for the second time in as many league games when travelling to Rotherham on Saturday. Is our third defeat against a side using 3-5-2 a sign that Lee Johnson needs to go back to the drawing board with our current formation?

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

The Teams

As Sunderland returned to league action, they also returned to the 4-2-3-1 formation that they’ve used most often in the early stages of the season. As well as the predictable returns of Thorben Hoffmann, Tom Flanagan, Callum Doyle and Dennis Cirkin into the back five, Elliot Embleton and Aiden McGeady also came in for Corey Evans and Lynden Gooch with Leon Dajaku favoured over the American on the right flank.

xG and Chance Creation

If ever there was a graph to show just how dominant the home side was on Saturday it’s the xG graph below. Sunderland failed to register a shot until 20 minutes in, by which time the home team was already one goal ahead.

As the game continued, Rotherham created a steady stream of chances including those for the remaining four goals, whilst Sunderland created practically nothing apart from Ross Stewart’s temporary transformation into Thierry Henry to make it one-all.

If you want to know exactly how bad our performance was, we had a lower xG than against Portsmouth and we also conceded a higher xG.

Do Sunderland have a problem against 3-5-2?

Looking back at the games in which Sunderland have dropped points this season, a worrying pattern is emerging. In all three league defeats, this season Sunderland have faced a team playing a formation with 3 at the back and two strikers, and Fleetwood also set up in a 3-5-2 shape when they managed to hold us to a draw.

It would have been interesting to see how we fared in the second half against Rotherham, as Lee Johnson made a couple of halftime changes to switch from a 4-2-3-1 into a 3-4-3 with Lynden Gooch going into wing-back and Bailey Wright coming on to play at centre back.

However, Aiden McGeady’s sending off finished Sunderland’s aspirations of winning the game and we conceded two more goals on our way to a crushing defeat.

I discussed following the Portsmouth game how the use of Dajaku as a right-winger against wingbacks left Carl Winchester exposed and was a recipe for disaster. Well, we went one further on Saturday and also left Dennis Cirkin out to dry as Aiden McGeady was used on the left.

Against Rotherham, the lack of any players tracking the opposition wing-backs left Tom Flanagan and Callum Doyle - not the most physical pair of league one centre-halves - having to defend two physical strikers, Freddie Ladapo and Michael Smith, one-on-one. It’s no surprise the pair bagged a brace each.

It’s a fairly common tactic to switch from a standard 4-2-3-1 into a 3-4-3 when coming up against sides who play with two centre forwards - Rafa Benitez has done this at both Everton and Newcastle, whilst Marcelo Bielsa has started using a 3-3-3-1 instead of a 4-1-4-1 when playing teams like Southampton and Burnley who use a 4-4-2.

Lee Johnson should consider making a similar switch, and with Luke O’Nien able to play in either midfield or at wide centre back, and Gooch’s ability to play as either a winger or a wing-back there’s no reason why we couldn't switch between formations in-game without having to make a substitution.


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