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Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Tactics: What does the data tell us about Sunderland’s dynamic performance v Plymouth?

Coel Young breaks down Sunderland’s performance against Plymouth to figure out what went right and what went wrong for Lee Johnson’s team as they nabbed all three points against a tough side.

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Starting Lineup and Shapes

(Sunderland 4-2-3-1, Plymouth 5-3-2)

Runners in behind

Recent matches have seen a slight difference in the shape we have used in possession, with Wright tucking inside from his right-back slot to create a back three in possession.

Neil and Winchester played as a midfield two, whilst Gooch and Dajaku would hold width on each flank (essentially playing as wingers in possession).

Pritchard and Broadhead tuck inside and play as 10’s from the right and left respectively, whilst Stewart plays centrally (as seen in the below passing network).

This shape in possession proved to be incredibly effective against Plymouth, and Johnson and his staff clearly had a plan on how to quickly get into the spaces behind their backline.

As James pointed out in his article, the speed of our attacks from back to front has drastically changed in recent weeks, and the first half was a great example of how quickly we are able to progress the ball into the final third.

One pattern which had lots of success in the first half was a flat pass from Wright into Pritchard, who looked to drop towards the ball in the inside-right channel.

This constantly pulled out the Plymouth left centre-back Gillesphey, which triggered a run from Dajaku or Stewart into this space behind him.

Pritchard’s ability between the lines and under pressure meant it was so difficult for Plymouth to apply pressure and prevent him from turning and releasing his pass.

The build-up to our second goal was a perfect example of the plan Johnson had looked to implement paying off.

The below graphic illustrates our intention to build down the right in the first half to exploit Plymouth down their left.

Going forward, considering the amount of sides in the division who play with back threes, this pattern of play could be hugely valuable in exploiting the spaces down the sides and in-behind backlines which lack mobility and athleticism.


Important to the first half approach was the amount of flexibility across our forward line.

Stewart for example constantly looked to drift towards the flanks to win first balls and combine with those around him (as shown in his below touch map), whilst Pritchard drifting towards the right often dragged their holding midfielder away from his zone in front of the Plymouth backline, opening spaces for players (Broadhead in the below example) to drop in and receive.

#4 pulled away from his central position by Pritchard drifting towards the right, Stewart drifts into the left channel and Broadhead drops in to receive; Scarr (highlighted) doesn’t want to step out and backs off.
Stewart looked to drift to the right flank especially to combine.


Another impressive aspect of the first half performance especially was the pressing from the front. From our 4–2–3–1 defensive shape, Dajaku and Broadhead positioned themselves higher and looked to funnel the ball towards the middle of the pitch by cutting off the pass into the wingback with their body positioning.

The midfield duo of Neil and Winchester would then look to jump on any passes in the midfield area and force turnovers, and Pritchard was excellent in screening the easy pass back inside into Houghton at the base of the Plymouth midfield.

Broadhead cuts the pass into the wingback and forces the play back inside. Stewart similarly looks to cut the pitch in half.

The pressure in these central areas was good and Plymouth very rarely were able to progress the ball through the middle, and were often forced backward straight away -and subsequently into a longer pass downfield.

If we were able to force them backwards, then we quickly used this as a trigger to step higher and force a longer pass.

Squeezing higher on square/backward passes. Pritchard once again excellent in his screening of #4 at the base.

In the second half, although we dropped into more of a deeper shape (and switched to a 5–2–1–2 with Broadhead partnering Stewart up-front), we were still able to prevent any passes into middle areas by matching up in the middle.

5–2–1–2 shape off the ball, matching up with Plymouth’s midfield three.


One main strength of our starting XI was the amount of pace and athleticism we had across our forward line, and we were a massive threat on the counter attack all match.

We were often able to quickly transition from back to front, with Pritchard and Stewart often offering the first pass out from the back, from which we could then look to release Broadhead/Dajaku into space.

Stewart the platform for launching counters.


The only real areas of weakness vs. Plymouth were once again down the channels.

In the second half particularly, they caused us issues with direct passes into the channels and winning the first ball. With our wingbacks often jumping high, our back three were left quite exposed if Plymouth were able to pick up the second ball:

Winchester positioned high and the back three effectively left 3v3 on the long ball.

Although it did happen rarely throughout the match, again our centre-backs were dragged wide on occasion after Plymouth were able to get a runner in-behind our full-back.

This was a big issue in our recent bad run of form, however, the fact it didn’t happen too often throughout the match was promising, as was the shift to a back three in the second half which gives the centre-backs less distance to cover down their respective side.

In general, it was a really positive performance from Sunderland.

Plymouth were really poor, on the ball especially, however they couldn’t cope with our interchanging, runs in behind and excellent pressing off the ball.

Johnson got it spot on with his approach and utilised the pace we had in the starting eleven to attack the spaces in behind the Plymouth backline.


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With a huge game to come against Southampton, let’s give the Lasses maximum support!

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