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Talking Tactics: How Sunderland’s 5-0 win over Morecambe marks a changing approach

The Lads mauled Morecambe 5-0 thanks to some very incisive, fast football in arguably our most potent win of the season - yet, this game is a microcosm of an emerging shift in style.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Lee Johnson named an unchanged side for the third game in a row, but this time did tweak the formation.

At the weekend, we started in a back-three, and shifted to a four for the start of the second-half - it was this side that started the match on Tuesday. Ignore the formation below - we did not play that and is included merely as an indicative aid in regards to the player ratings.


Morphing Style of Approach

This is going to be a slightly different Talking Tactics from the usual.

In lieu of choosing three smaller topics of conversation to focus on from the match, it’ll be more of a deep dive on an emerging trend, one which was effective in totality against Morecambe.

In general, Sunderland’s approach this season has been more “slow and intricate” rather than “fast and direct”. I’m not disparaging that approach, either.

MK Dons play some really nice possession-based stuff, and we - more often than not - play a similar style but in “lite”. This essentially means that the median pass length is low, and the passes per attacking sequence is high, as shown below:

This chart measures and plots all teams’ direct speed of pass (in metres per second), and creates a direct correlation with the passes per sequence. Over the last month, Sunderland has been on quite a direct, fast and direct trend towards Wycombe, and away from MK Dons.

This season so far, Sunderland have completed 2.85 passes per attacking sequence with an average sequence time of 7.87s (both metrics are 4th highest in the league respectively).

A full breakdown, alongside some main title rivals’ stats, can be seen below:

Most intriguingly, however, is that three weeks ago - we had only completed 20 successful direct attacks. 13 of all successful direct attacks this season have taken place in the last three matches. The key here is successful, as we have been quite ponderous from direct situations all season.

As a result, Sunderland is trending more than any other side upon a bottom-right to top-left trajectory on the aforelisted Team Style Comparison chart.

From open play, the 7 sides are largely inseparable in terms of quantity of attacks, and we outperform most in terms of quality. However, hugely lag behind our immediate title rivals (Rotherham and Wigan) in set-piece xG.

Generally, most sides who manage to get promoted from this division play fast and powerful football. Rotherham and Wycombe are geniuses at it and exactly why the former consistently yo-yos between League One and the Championship, and the latter are serious contenders again this season - and it is clear Lee Johnson has instructed the Lads to trend towards a similar style.

Of course, such tactical switches take time.

It’s almost like trying to turn a luxury cruise liner in 1907 after it has already plummeted bow-first into an iceberg. Thus results will be gradual, but Morecambe was the first side who could not live with Sunderland’s triple threat of; high-pressing, fast-attacks and individual quality. I’ll address the former two here.

Prior to the Oxford game, Sunderland would on average complete just 5.1 dribbles per game and had recorded fewer carries and take-ons than all our title rivals.

In the last two matches, we have recorded 10 and 16 respectively.

Here’s a full breakdown of the entire season so far:

Dribbles Completed - Sunderland 20/21
Opposition Dribbles
Morecambe 16
Portsmouth 11
Oxford 10
Shrewsbury 9
Burton 8
Sheff Wed 8
Cheltenham 7
Rotherham 6
Accrington 5
Wimbledon 5
Wycombe 4
Cambridge 4
Bolton 4
Charlton 4
Ipswich 3
Gilingham 3
Crewe 2
Fleetwood 2
MK Dons 1
Wigan 1

And a full visualisation of just last night:

The average sequence of attack was also lower, despite dominating the ball for most of the game.

Alex Pritchard, Leon Dajaku and Nathan Broadhead are a very mobile attacking midfield trio behind Ross Stewart, and Lynden Gooch adds a new attacking dimension down the left - though we may have to live with some defensive mishaps in the meantime.

This resulted in a very aggressive approach and average lineup (the first graphic below):

This aforementioned quartet and the midfield pivot all took exceedingly high positions for all the game, pushing Morecambe back and forcing them to resort to route-one escapes to Cole Stockton.

They still had their chances, and it must be made clear that this approach will result in allowing a high quantity of opposition attacking sequences, but we already do that anyway so may as well offset with introducing more incisive attacking football into the mix.

The policy of shooting on sight continued as per the second half v Oxford:

But, maybe most pleasingly for me, our PPDA, pressing stats, defensive actions in the opposition half and the average defensive line has - for the first time - returned to the levels that we saw in our long winning-run under Johnson last season.

Pritchard alone had a 100% success rate in completing 4 defensive actions in the opposition half, and he, Dajaku, Gooch and Broadhead completed 8/11 attempted. PPDA is still quite high this season, but nowhere near the insane figures that we saw around March.

Lastly, we took far more care of the ball on Tuesday, with Dan Neil excelling again:

He totally dictated the game on the ball and this pivot of Neil-Winchester is easily the best midfield pairing in the entire squad. Winch himself had an overall passing success rate of 84% from over 30 attempted too.

Thorben Hoffmann’s distribution is also absolutely wonderful. Not only is he consistently alert in attempting to play the ball as quickly as possible after receiving it, but he is also as adept a passer as any outfield player on the pitch:

One really pleasing statistic is that he completed over 90% of his passes, which is the highest individual total by any goalkeeper in the league this season, and not a single pass crossed beyond the halfway line. This is the first time I have ever seen this, and if someone wants to prove me wrong in assuming that this is the first time this has happened in Sunderland’s history, please do so as I’d love to find out.

We may have switched to a more direct style, but it is mainly a far more efficacious one. Direct play isn’t just banging it long from a central defender or goalkeeper, but effectively working the ball into angles of progression; down the channels, behind the defensive line et al. The fact that we are playing far more direct but our goalkeeper did not even attempt a single pass beyond the half-way line is testament to the fact that this new style is in its infancy, but already showing auspicious signs of development.

Most successful league one promotion sides are very efficient at creating goals from high-value attacking sequences played at pace. Lee Johnson has obviously identified this as a necessary shift in order to attain promotion. We’re playing more direct and have packed the team with highly mobile attackers - but we need more steel.

Also one last note for Alex Pritchard - he has been nothing short of magnificent of late both on and off the ball. His interplay with Stewart and Broadhead is a delight to watch and he is as integral at setting up a pressing system as he is at creating.

Rapidly catching up on McGeady & Gooch’s early-season creative figures, Sunderland now has 3 of the 6 top xA players in the entire league:

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