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Sunderland v Bradford City - EFL Trophy

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Talking Tactics: What does the data tell us, and how can Lee Johnson fix Sunderland’s form?

For Sunderland’s form to drop off as badly as it has, something has changed - so what does the data tell us about what Lee Johnson needs to alter if he’s going to get us back on track?

Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Before I start, I’ve got to be honest - I’ve put off writing this article for a week as I’ve been incredibly frustrated with Sunderland, and the rapid regression that we’ve seen in recent performances from Lee Johnson and the team.

It’s easy enough to point fingers at him or individual players, but I’d like to dig a little deeper - so, I’ve gone through the data to draw my own conclusions.

Home and Away comparison


Played 7
Won 6
Lost 1

Per Game (Division Position)

Points: 2.57 (1st)
Goals For 2 (Tied 3rd)
Goals Against 0.57 (1st)
Clean Sheets 3 (5th)

As the stats show above, Sunderland are pretty much the benchmark club at home in League One. Despite blotting our copybook with Charlton, The Lads have been fantastic at the Stadium of Light this season, and I don’t think we need data to acknowledge this.


Played 8
Won 3
Drawn 1
Lost 4

Per Game (Division Position)

Points: 1.25 (Tied 10th)
Goals For 1.38 (Tied 11th)
Goals Against 2.12 (Tied 21st)
Clean Sheets 1 (Tied 12th)

Despite a drop-off in performances, I think our away performances have been questionable all season long - and some of the data is seriously concerning.

  • 87% of matches we have conceded in
  • 38% of matches we failed to score in

Based on our away form, Sunderland have to score 2+ goals in 87% of away games to have a chance of winning. We are conceding far too many, and have failed to score in 3 out of 8 matches.

So what has changed, then?

When looking through the data, I discovered a trend in what opposition teams are doing when they come up against Sunderland - all season, compared to our league rivals, we don’t press anywhere near as much as they do.

We rank 13th for PPDA (Pass per defensive action). If I show you all the passing networks from opposition teams this season, you might notice a change in approach towards recent games.

The big difference that I can see is how much higher Charlton, Rotherham and Sheff Wed are sitting when they have the ball. This, in my opinion, is the main problem. Wycombe also did the same at the start of the season - which is a game, according to xG, they really should have drawn.

What does that change mean?

I picked a game at random from the start of the season to compare with Rotherham, so I can highlight the change. The pitch is broken into thirds, with green the attacking third and red the defensive third.

Rotherham were 5-10 yards further up the pitch as a team compared to sides like Bolton at the beginning of the season.

Teams have figured Sunderland out, and are willing to play football much higher.

What else was noticeable?

The xG has gradually slipped the wrong way for Sunderland lately as well.

Based on my own calculations, Sunderland would register 25 points by xG, so we’d lose 3 points to our current tally. Based on xG, some of the results below could change to this:

  • Burton from loss to win
  • Wycombe from win to draw
  • Bolton from win to draw
  • Gillingham from win to loss
  • Charlton from loss to draw

Stating the obvious here, but we can see that Sunderland have work to do.

What should Lee Johnson do?

We clearly have some serious issues, and the biggest is that teams have, worryingly, found out how to easily score past us.

We have a problem - particularly at full-back - in allowing teams to cross balls into the box, failing to deal with the danger.

One way to prevent this is to ensure that our full backs are receiving adequate support, by getting our midfielders and wide players to track back more often than they do. This is stating the obvious, but it’s clearly one of the biggest headaches Lee Johnson has to deal with, and something that he must address immediately if our form is to improve.

Also, he needs to figure out how to push teams further back down the pitch. As shown before, we are allowing teams to sit 5-10 yards further up the pitch on the ball. This involves a better, efficient pressing game by Lee Johnson.

Last season, Sunderland were excellent at pressing, but we’ve been average this time around - it’s time to go back to basics.

Sunderland v Bolton Wanderers - Sky Bet League One
Sunderland needs to get back to pressing teams
Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Ultimately, Johnson must take more risks.

We usually start to make substitutions after the sixtieth minute, and when I looked into rival teams, managers are rolling the dice and making tactical changes earlier than we do.

Again, I’m stating the obvious here, but if a player isn’t playing well, sub him off at half time! Johnson’s cautious approach cost us against Sheffield Wednesday, and I’d encourage the Sunderland gaffer to look to his bench earlier than he usually does if there’s a glaring issue that we’re failing to deal with.

That said, I have to be fair and acknowledge that against Bradford in the EFL Trophy, he did just that - making four changes at the break. Maybe he’s figured this out himself... who knows. I guess we’ll find out the next time we go into the break struggling, and in need of a lift.

Not all is lost, however - despite our poor form lately, the Lads are still doing better than in the 19/20 and 20/21 seasons. There’s still hope, and if Lee Johnson gets it together, we’ll still be in with a good shot at promotion - the season is long, and there’s time to fix things.


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