Lee Johnson lined the Lads up in both the same formation and personnel as last week. Again, Alex Pritchard played just behind Ross Stewart and Nathan Broadhead, with Lynden Gooch and Leon Dajaku as wing-backs in a 3-4-1-2.
Lack of Fluidity & Balance
In the first half, in particular, we attempted to repeatedly try and find the break in-behind Oxford’s high backline. This made sense, as opposition PPDA this season is low thanks to their high pressing, and they are a possession-heavy side with Cameron Brannagan in midfield impressing all-year long.
As RR contributor Coel Young pointed out on his own site last week and in the graphs below, they are 10th in the league for Passes per Shot Against and 6th for PPDA this season:
Coel also points out just how easy we are to break down:
This is very worrying, but we were more solid in the first half, with Oxford creating very few chances barring the goal they were gifted by Lynden Gooch. However, we were too imbalanced and not fluid enough in possession as a result of continually attempting to find the direct route and too many players performing poorly in unfamiliar positions.
The direct route did work out for the opening goal, but largely down to Leon Dajaku’s individual brilliance for the goal. Dajaku struggled in an unfamiliar role again, particularly defensively, but that goal shows what he brings to the game, and he must be utilised in a far more advanced position.
Overall, the formation was particularly narrow:
Bear in mind, however, this does include the 20 minutes of a different formation in which Gooch & Dajaku switched sides.
As part of playing Dajaku and Gooch in unfamiliar roles, our pressing issues continued - it is far too narrow and there is no secondary press whatsoever. Thus, Dajaku would push too far up the pitch, and Oxford would double-up on him and open up spaces in the channels.
Formation Tweak Pays Off
Changing formation at half-time gave the Lads a new lease of life, playing in far more comfortable and familiar roles. Lee Johnson switched to a 4-2-3-1: Hoffman; Wright, Flanagan, Doyle, Gooch; Winchester, Neil; Dajaku, Pritchard, Broadhead; Stewart.
This allowed us a far more balanced system and matched up Oxford in midfield as Alex Pritchard was slightly withdrawn from such an advanced role he occupied in the opening 45. As a result, and perhaps due to Oxford tiring after our relentless pressure, we dominated the second half in terms of both possession, and xG:
This forced Oxford very deep. This season, there has been one constant in defeats: the side in which we suffered the defeat pressed us very high. Stop the supply line and the team struggles. This has been evident just looking at the last 6 games:
We have been able to combat this and impose far better upon the game since that dreadful run including the Rotherham & Sheff Wed matches shown above. However, due to poor finishing, bad luck and some odd refereeing decisions, we couldn’t quite find the breakthrough in the second half against one of the best defensive units in the league.
Shoot on Sight
Presumably, at half-time, LJ asked his squad to take more risks, and take their chances in good positions. The two graphics below show a stark contrast in style in the final third and opposition half:
The aforementioned more balanced and familiar system helped, but there had to be an instruction for such a massive change in approach. This was partly due to the poor passing performances of the players as a whole, with Dan Neil the only player to have completed over 70% of his passes on the day:
Thus, attempting more shots and completing more dribbles shows a marked change in approach.
It almost paid off, and it is annoying to have thrown away two points (Gooch) in our game in hand, but we are still two points off the top, LJ has the best win percentage for Sunderland since Billy Elliot in 1979 and this has been a marked improvement over the last two years with much more wiggle room in January and Year One of a new football-forward setup behind the scenes.
It may not be nice to hear, but we are right on track with 18/19 in a much weaker league, and currently, fairing better than last season’s promoted sides did at this stage.
There are no two sides in it who look to be overwhelming favourites for promotion.