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Talking Tactics: What’s going wrong defensively for Lee Johnson and Sunderland?

In his debut piece for RR, Coel Young goes in-depth to analyse why Sunderland’s defence has been so leaky this season. What’s going wrong, and can it be fixed?

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Although Sunderland find themselves only 3 points from the top of League One with a game in hand on Rotherham, a recent poor run of form has featured some terrible defensive performances, whilst a lack of clean sheets and defensive fragility has been widely highlighted by supporters.

According to StatsPerform’s data, Sunderland are 10th worst in the division when it comes to the quality of chance conceded (total of 18 xG against), and perhaps most alarmingly, Sunderland are one of the easiest sides in the division to create shots against when you win possession, allowing the opposition one shot for every 28 passes they make.

Results have picked up again in the last week with 7 points from the last three matches, however, is this a case of simply papering over the cracks?

In the article, I will overview some of the defensive weaknesses that might give context to the worrying statistics, and highlight some of the areas that might once again cost Sunderland promotion over the course of the season.

Note: Although this article focuses solely on the defensive side of the game, it isn’t intending to be overly negative about the performances on the whole, as going forward there have been big improvements in possession and in relation to chance creation. As a Sunderland fan I also tried to write this as objectively as possible.


Pressing issues

Starting at the top of the pitch, one issue for Sunderland is the pressing, and more specifically how many players are committed to the press. This is highlighted more-so against sides who play back threes, where the wingers in the 4–2–3–1 shape are pushed up against the opposition central defenders.

The front-4 of Sunderland’s 4–2–3–1 defensive shape

This often means that the pressing shape of the front-four is very narrow, which opens up a pass into the wingback if the front-four are unable to funnel a pass towards the centre of the pitch with their body positioning.

This pass often causes a chain reaction, as the fullback then has to jump up to apply pressure. This creates a large disconnect in backline due to the distance between the fullback and supporting centre-back, and opens space for a runner into the channel (covered further in one of the below sections).

Dajaku doesn’t force play towards the centre and runs straight at the centre-back, making the pass wide an easy option (forcing Winchester to jump out of position).

Sunderland are quite effective with their pressing generally, ranking fairly highly in the division for PPDA (Passes by the opposition per defensive action)…

… however, it is when this press is beaten is when the issues start to arise and when they’re consequently forced to defend deeper in their shape.


Open on turnover

In possession, Sunderland also commit a lot of players to the attacks, sometimes leaving only three behind the ball. This is hugely dangerous in the case of a turnover and makes it incredibly difficult for the covering midfielder to cover the entire width of the pitch in these situations.

At times, there are 6/7 players committed ahead of the ball without any sort of plan or structure in case the ball is lost, or to win the second ball.

This, unfortunately, can result in the below situations.

Huge spaces for the covering midfielder (O’Nien) to cover in both the above situations and massive spaces to exploit down the flanks.

One of the reasons for this openness in possession is due to the frequent over/underlapping movements from the fullbacks in the wide areas to create 2v1s.

Both Cirkin and Winchester have been largely excellent going forward this season, so this is a case of risk and reward, however, if too many players are committed to these attacks and a midfielder doesn’t drop in to cover, there are big spaces for the opposition to exploit upon the turnover of possession, as has been the case in recent matches especially.


Centre-backs exposed

Both of the above factors, the pressing shape and openness in possession, are two of the primary factors for why the centre-backs (most often Flanagan and Doyle) have been exposed to extremely difficult situations in recent fixtures.

As aforementioned, our pressing shape/defensive organisation often means that the full-back has to jump up to apply pressure, in turn opening the space behind him.

Teams have constantly exploited this weakness this season by ensuring they have got a runner into this channel (either a midfielder or a forward).

Winchester jumps up, Wing (26) pulls Flanagan wide with run from midfield and Doyle pulled out by CF. Massive spaces on the far side to exploit.

This drags the centre-backs towards the touchline and into a 1v1, which considering the lack of general athleticism and pace of Flanagan and Doyle, is a very poor situation to be in from a defensive perspective.

Doyle beaten 1v1 in the channel when dragged towards the touchline.

Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday (who both play 5–3–2 shapes) ruthlessly exploited this in their 5–1 and 3–0 wins respectively, consistently getting a runner from midfield into this channel to drag the centre-backs into the wide areas.

Using a runner from midfield to isolate the centre-back also enabled them to keep both forwards central and in the penalty box for any resulting crosses (another issue covered more in the “Crossing” section below).

Rotherham’s opening goal, where the run from the midfielder (8) allows Ladapo and Smith to stay central and subsequently combine to score.


Switches of play

The positioning of the far-side winger is also a big concern, as they are often seen quite passive and narrow in their position and are in no position to offer defensive support to the full-back upon a switch of play.

Here Broadhead is in no position to support and O’Nien (playing left-back) is dragged infield, giving the full-back acres of space down the right

This gives freedom to sides to hit straightforward diagonals across the pitch and create either 1v1 situations vs. Cirkin or Winchester or create a 2v1 due to the poor positioning of the winger on the far-side. Again, this has created huge trouble for sides who play with wing-backs, as it has allowed them to create overloads in the wide areas.

Similarly, when opposition sides play a back-three and the wingers are instructed to press the centre-backs, the same issue happens again:

Dajaku (7) near the opposition CB (2), allowing Rotherham to create a 2v1 following a switch vs Winchester.

Also, the narrow positioning of the winger causes further trouble if the full-back is pinned on that side or has to press infield against a winger and an opposition full-back advances, as it gives them time and space to put a cross into the box:

In both situations, O’Nien is pinned by the narrow positioning of Aluko down the left, and Broadhead being narrow gives the full-back time and space to cross.


Lack of clarity

One alarming aspect of Sunderland’s defensive organisation is the lack of clarity and communication between the full-back and winger as to who closes down the opposition wide player.

There have been countless situations in recent fixtures where both have stood off the man in the wide area in possession, giving them all the time in the world to deliver into the box.

Generally, sides are drilled on who presses and who covers in such situations (for example the winger presses and the full-back covers and narrows off inside), however, a lack of this has again been a key feature recently.

Although this is partially a collective issue, individually McGeady is borderline disgraceful in his closing down attempts, continually failing/refusing to put any sort of pressure on the ball:

This lack of clarity also extends to the midfielders, as there is confusion as to who is responsible for which opposition players.

Here, neither O’Nien or Neil really pick up Aluko and a straightforward ball into the channel has Doyle chasing towards the corner flag:

And finally neither Neil or the left-winger track the runner and the centre-back is dragged towards the touchline and away from his penalty area (again):

Here an example of good practice, where Winchester doubles up really well with the full-back and tracks the runner into the channel, which prevents the centre-back being dragged wide:


Defending the box from crosses

Finally, as almost the final consequence of all the previous parts of Sunderland’s defensive weaknesses discussed above, is the defending of the box on crossing situations.

Fans have widely recognised the inability to defend balls into the box all season, pointing towards some poor individual defending from our defensive line, criticism which has been completely warranted on numerous occasions. The lack of pressure on the ball and space opposition players are given to deliver, as discussed, does however make it difficult for the defenders as the wide man has so much time to deliver a quality ball, giving the attackers in the box time to plan their movement to attack the delivery.

This, combined with the lack of experience in the backline in Cirkin and Doyle, the struggles are maybe unsurprising. Doyle in particular has been particularly poor in his decision-making and has been guilty of being caught under the ball too frequently or rushing out of his slot when there’s no need.

Caught under the ball (first GIF), and steps out of his slot to close shot on the edge of the area when its not necessary to (second GIF)

Similarly, overloads at the back-post have become a major issue (as seen in the match vs Sheffield Wednesday especially), which is compounded by the lack of support for the fullback from the winger (passive on the far side).

However, it is the situations before the cross or that have led to the cross that is the most concerning. As aforementioned, the centre-backs are constantly required to defend near the touchline after being dragged wide, and the result of this is that there is now a lack of presence in the box for any subsequent crosses.

Often, one of the centre midfielders will have to drop into the defensive line to cover for the centre-back that has been dragged wide, however this then means that there is now a big vacated space on the edge of the six yard area (where that midfielder would be) for a potential cutback.

Doyle (red circle) was dragged wide earlier in the play, meaning O’Nien (the central midfielder) has to drop in, leaving a big zone on the edge of the six-yard area for a potential cutback.


Despite the improvements in possession, I still struggle to see any sort of clear idea or style that Johnson is trying to implement and if you were asked to identify what a major strength of the side was, I think it’d be difficult to come up with an answer.

The recent wins against Ipswich and Cambridge paper over the cracks of these defensive issues, however the continuous exposure of the centre-backs, inability to defend crosses and lack of defensive organisation in the wide areas out of possession are alarming signs for the rest of the campaign.

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