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Talking Tactics: Similar problems arise for sorry Sunderland - here’s where they went wrong

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Lee Johnson’s Sunderland side pulled off a real Jekyll & Hyde performance either side of half-time to lose away for the first time this season against Shrewsbury - here’s what the statistics tell us about their performance.

Talking Tactics
Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Lee Johnson once again lined Sunderland up in his favoured-of-late 4-2-2-2 formation. Though the line-up was wrong at kick-off, owing to a “clerical error” according to Johnson himself, and Conor McLaughlin withdrew from the side through injury in the build-up. Thus, the team that started the game had only three changes from the midweek draw with MK Dons, as Remi Matthews, Josh Scowen and Jordan Jones all replaced Lee Burge, Luke O’Nien and Lynden Gooch respectively.

Jordan Willis suffered a suspected patella injury in the 2nd minute of the game and was stretchered off, replaced by Dion Sanderson. I’d expect, if so, that would be his season over & with him out of contract at the end of the year it may be the last time we see him in red and white. He also got stretchered off on a stretcher that looked like a cross between a medieval torture device and a farm plough, either way, it is something Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have been proud of.

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus was in attendance as his protracted takeover of Sunderland is imminent, and he wouldn’t have been as proud of the performance on show.

Check the Gallery at the bottom of the article for full data visualisations, courtesy of @markrstats

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Selection & Formation Issues

Sunderland’s head coach came under quite a lot of criticism after the game for a raft of selection issues and continually lining up his side in a 4-2-2-2. There is quite a dichotomy between fans & coaches in terms of the specifics of formations, with most modern-day managers believing them to be quite fluid. Kristjaan Speakman may be the sporting director, but he is first and foremost a football man and a coach, and on a recent episode of the club’s official podcast, he even alluded to this. However, it is quite evident that 4-2-2-2 poses numerous issues to our current playing squad.

The formation itself is arguably one of the sharpest double-edged sword formations to deploy a side into, and this game typified both the benefits and drawbacks wonderfully either side of the half-time break. In the first half, we looked to press high as usual, with a defensive line that averaged out at sitting right on the half-way line. This was with the explicit aim to go direct in behind and wide to expose Shrewsbuy’s typically high-line. We did this with aplomb, as our front four all looked dangerous and the pairing at centre forwards arguably played out some of their best combination play at the club yet. Aiden O’Brien’s goal was well-finished, excellently timed and fully-deserved.

4-2-2-2 quite clearly draws the best out of Wyke and O’Brien, and Johnson deserves enormous credit for being the first coach to crack this enigma. Wyke’s overall game in the first ‘45 was top-class for League One. Playing with bodies in-and-around the big man provides him with the real support that he lacked to focus on his own game and gets the best out of his clinical finishing in front of goal.

However, 4-2-2-2 also leaves the team exposed in the middle of the park, as you are forced to allow the opposition to both occupy territory and possession, with gaps left all over. The second-half typified this, with Shrewsbury’s midfield of Vela, Norburn and Goss nicely supporting the front three with intelligent movement both ahead of and behind Grant Leadbitter and Scowen.

I believe Johnson got his tactics and approach spot-on in the first half. He identified a weakness, his players exposed it, and we absolutely dominated the game territorially. However, he was far too slow to react to Shrewsbury’s own tactical switch (more on that later) and a few selection issues still grate. Jordan Willis has quite clearly been playing through the pain for some time due to a tendonitis issue. He has looked a shadow of his former self and has needed to be withdrawn for some time now - his injury was inevitable. Dion Sanderson is a more than able deputy and is actually the best defender in the side at progressing the ball at pace within the central vertical third of the pitch. Just play him.

There is also an even greater issue: Grant Leadbitter in a midfield two. While Grant, on the whole, has performed well this season, he simply does not have the energy or legs any more to play in a midfield two. Especially in a 4-2-2-2, which requires the defensive midfield pivot to constantly recycle play in order to dictate and grab a foothold on the game. MK Dons exposed this at the weekend, pushing Scott Fraser (among the best central midfielders in the league) right up behind the gaps vacated by Leadbitter. Shrewsbury did the same, with both Josh Vela pushing high and Curtis Main dropping deep into this area time and time again. If Johnson is to persist with a 4-2-2-2, the midfield pairing has to be packed with legs, stamina and energy. Or switch it to a formation that allows us to dictate games from the middle.

Shrewsbury Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Jordan Willis being stretchered off on the medieval farm plough.
Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images

Poor Game Management

We have dropped 16 points from winning positions this season. It is by far the highest out of any promotion rival, and only two teams have dropped more (Wimbledon & Plymouth). The fact we continually let teams who are dead-in-the-water back into games is purely unacceptable. This is the biggest and most worrying pattern that aligns both Johnson and Parkinson’s time at Sunderland this season. 7 of these have come against Shrewsbury, MK Dons and Gillingham under the new coach.

Points Dropped After Taking Lead

Pos Team Times Lead Wins Draws Losses Points Lost % Won
Pos Team Times Lead Wins Draws Losses Points Lost % Won
1 Lincoln 17 16 0 1 3 94.1%
2 Hull 20 15 2 3 13 75.0%
3 P'boro 18 15 3 0 6 83.3%
4 Pompy 16 14 2 0 4 87.5%
5 Donny 17 15 1 1 5 88.2%
6 Charlton 15 12 2 1 7 80.0%
7 Sunlun 17 10 5 2 16 58.8%
8 Accy 14 12 2 0 4 85.7%
9 Oxford 14 12 1 1 5 85.7%
10 Crewe 14 11 3 0 6 78.6%
11 Ipswich 16 12 1 3 11 75.0%
12 Plymouth 18 10 6 2 18 55.6%
13 Fleetwood 11 8 2 1 7 72.7%
14 MK 10 9 1 0 2 90.0%
15 Blackpool 13 10 0 3 9 76.9%
16 Gills 12 10 2 0 4 83.3%
17 Shrews 13 7 5 1 13 53.8%
18 Rochdale 11 6 3 2 12 54.5%
19 Wimbledon 16 6 7 3 23 37.5%
20 Bristol R 10 6 3 1 9 60.0%
21 Wigan 10 6 2 2 10 60.0%
22 Swindon 11 7 2 2 10 63.6%
23 No'ton 8 6 1 1 5 75.0%
24 Burton 10 4 4 2 14 40.0%

This isn’t all on Johnson, but everyone involved needs to take a portion of the blame. In each of these games, we sat far too deep after scoring and made numerous individual errors to allow them back in it.

On to the gaffer first: he has been too slow to react to the opposition’s tactical shifts in the last two games. MK Dons flooded the midfield and exposed us in the middle of the pitch, while Shrewsbury dropped deep to negate our strikers’ effectiveness at exposing their high-line, and played far more compact to again outnumber our men in the middle. It was self-evident five minutes into the second-half that Leadbitter either needed hooked (he’s played 11 games in a month at the age of 35), or definitely at the very least protected with bodies around him. Johnson simply had to switch to a 4-3-3 at the very least to protect his midfield and allow us to dictate the game. Instead, he replaced Jordan Jones (one of our most impressive attackers on the night) and kept both midfielders on, in a two, for the duration.

Some subs may have been forced upon Johnson, which is unfortunate. But it is clear we needed to flood the midfield and introduce pace out wide far, far earlier. Neither came until far too late at the very best. Johnson himself changed the game against MK Dons by learning from his mistake with a brave quadruple sub - we need more of that.

The players, however, also have to take their fair share of the blame. Whether they tried, or let their heads drop - it is just unacceptable for such experienced and talented players to allow a team who offered absolutely nothing prior back into the game through nothing. Hopefully, some of the senior pro’s were reading the riot act to the rest (and themselves) after the game.

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Individual Errors

This is by far and away the biggest glaring issue facing the squad right now. It technically isn’t under the remit of Talking Tactics but has to be addressed. Analytically, we are one of the highest performing sides in the division. We still currently hold the highest xG and xGA in the entire league, yet this does not allow for individual errors in the algorithm. Charlie Wyke’s is the highest individual, and we have the most clean sheets - yet just look at some of the rank errors on show.

Remi Matthews has made a spade of high-profile, disgracefully bad mistakes this season. These two were just the latest of a long run. Lee Burge hasn’t made as many, but he is still shaky. Dropping the ball against Hull was his first “major error leading to a goal” but there are still question marks over him. He does not inspire confidence and both MK Dons goals at the weekend were soft. My memory will always harken back to Rochdale this season when we drew 2-2, and he only made a single, solitary save. The decision to allow Jon McLaughlin to leave and not find a more-than-able replacement is truly an awful one.

Ahead of the goal, we far too often fall asleep at the back. Jake Vokins left a man in 10 yards of space in the penalty box, just as Callum McFadzean did against Gillingham and plenty more have earlier in the season. The whole side dropped their heads after this error, and it simply was not good enough. In general, the second half was an unmitigated disaster.

Without this, we’d have walked away from the game with a decent win away from home against a resurgent side under their new boss. These are not on Johnson, but he did pick the men who committed them.