After a couple of poor results in recent games, Lee Johnson revamped his Sunderland side with six changes in personnel and a switch in formation from the side that was beaten by Shrewsbury on Tuesday night.
Of these changes, only Jordan Willis’ absence was enforced and he was replaced in by Dion Sanderson, just as he was during Tuesday night’s game. As for the other changes, Burge returned in goal ahead of Matthews whilst McFadzean and McLaughlin came into the back four with Leadbitter and Vokins making way meaning Power returned to his natural midfield position. Out wide, Jordan Jones was omitted to allow Lynden Gooch to return, and Luke O’Nien’s inclusion ahead of Aiden O’Brien signalled Sunderland’s switch to 4-3-3.
The visitors came into this game after winning four of their last five, although their one defeat came last time out against Simon Grayson’s Fleetwood and, after yesterday’s result, Darren Moore’s side are no longer the form team in League One. Like Sunderland, they made a number of changes, with five players coming into a side which started in their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Ellery Balcombe continued in goal whilst Joe Wright replaced Tom Anderson in a back four that also included Brad Halliday, Andy Butler and Cameron John. Alongside Matthew Smith at the base of midfield, journeyman John Bostock dropped out for Mager Gomes - although this change was reversed by Moore at half time. In the front four, only former Sunderland full-back Reece James kept his place, as Scott Robertson, Jason Lokilo and Feijiri Okenbirhie were replaced by Jon Taylor, Taylor Richards and Omar Bogle.
Whilst all of the plaudits will go to Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke for their exceptional individual performances, Sunderland were much better in every department than both previous performances and their opponents on the day. Lee Johnson’s side pressed more effectively, attacked with more potency and looked less vulnerable to counter-attacks. It was Sunderland’s best performance of the season and the changes to the team’s shape and personnel were justified.
Check the Gallery at the bottom of the article for full data visualisations, courtesy of @markrstats
Sunderland’s pressing made up for the lack of a playmaker
By far the biggest change that Lee Johnson has made since taking over from Phil Parkinson is to get his side pressing high up the pitch, and this trend continued on Saturday, with Sunderland constantly looking to win the ball back from Doncaster’s defenders.
The change to 4-3-3, and more importantly the omission of Grant Leadbitter, meant that Sunderland fielded a workmanlike midfield trio with Scowen and O’Nien playing just ahead of Max Power. This was the first time Sunderland have played without a deep-lying playmaker in midfield in the league under Johnson, but the effectiveness of their pressing gave them more attacking opportunities than any playmaker could.
If we take the usual role of Grant Leadbitter, or indeed of any deep-lying playmaker, as playing the ball into the opposition final third for the forwards to create and score chances, Sunderland’s ability to win the ball in these areas meant the inclusion of such a player was unnecessary.
Passes Allowed per Defensive Action (PPDA) is the stat most often used to assess the intensity of a team’s press. The lower this figure, the fewer uncontested passes the opposition side is allowed, meaning the lower the PPDA the more intense the pressing. PPDA50 refers to this stat in the opposition half (top 50% of the pitch) whilst PPDA40 takes into account the top 40% of the pitch (the area above the dashed line).
Sunderland’s PPDA from Saturday’s game was actually much lower than in midweek against Shrewsbury Town. However, this is easily explained by Shrewsbury’s more direct style of play and unwillingness to build-up play from the back - the result indicates this tactic was successful at beating the Sunderland press. Instead, the stats from the MK Dons game are more appropriate for comparison, and Sunderland actually had similar PPDA stats as in that game. Put simply, Sunderland have consistently attempted to press high up the pitch in recent games; the difference at the weekend was that they did so much more successfully.
Against MK Dons, Sunderland won the ball back six times in the opposition half, against Shrewsbury this number was five - indicating the lower PPDA was due to the opposition rather than Sunderland’s pressing. On Saturday, Sunderland won the ball 14 times in the opposition half, more than in both of the last two games combined. This is why Sunderland were able to feed McGeady in dangerous positions, despite operating without a player who was given this specific role.
How was our pressing so much better?
In terms of the reasons why Sunderland were so much more successful in their pressing than in previous games, Lee Johnson must be given credit for his team selection and formation.
In the first talking tactics of the Lee Johnson era, I predicted that the former Bristol City manager would revert to the 4-2-2-2 formation he used at Bristol City, despite using a 4-3-3 during his first game in charge, because his high press requires players to be high up the pitch and in central areas. However, Johnson was able to achieve this on Saturday even in a 4-3-3 by lining up in a 4-1-4-1 shape with both centre midfielders pressing in the spaces normally occupied by a number ten.
This meant that Sunderland actually had more players putting pressure on Doncaster in their own half than when they played with an extra centre forward, and these five players worked as a unit to cut off passing lanes and force the man in possession into surrendering possession.
Starting with Charlie Wyke, who was almost as important when Sunderland didn’t have the ball as his goals when we did have it, the lone striker looked to close down the Doncaster centre backs when they had the ball, and to force them into playing the ball sideways towards the nearest full-back. Behind him, the two centre midfielders - Scowen and O’Nien -blocked the passing lanes to the away side’s double-pivot whilst the wide midfielders - McGeady and Gooch - did the same for passes into Doncaster’s wingers.
When the Doncaster centre backs played the ball to their nearest full back - the only option if they wanted to maintain their commitment to building play from the back - this was the signal for Sunderland’s midfield four (McGeady, Scowen, O’Nien and Gooch) to press the ball and to quickly force a turnover and for the back four to push up and limit the space that Max Power needed to cover.
The average position of Sunderland’s defensive line was almost on half-way, which shows how Lee Johnson’s side maintained compactness and reduced the space in between the lines of the 4-1-4-1 shape and, combined with the mobility of Max Power, allowed Sunderland to snuff out Doncaster’s attempts to play through the Sunderland press.
How did Sunderland guard against counter-attacks?
The last time Sunderland used the 4-3-3 formation and tried to press their opposition high up the pitch was in Lee Johnson’s first game at the club, where Sunderland looked vulnerable to the opposition’s counter-attacks and conceded in this manner to lose one-nil against a side in the bottom three.
Since then, and before Saturday, we have seen Johnson use 4-3-3 in games where he has looked to play on the break, such as in wins against Lincoln and Ipswich away. However, Johnson showed on Saturday that he has refined the suicidal 4-3-3 from the beginning of December, whilst maintaining the key principles of his style of play; namely, the high press.
Of course, one of the ways Sunderland were able to look more solid whilst still pressing high up the pitch was by being compact, as shown by the high defensive line in the graphic above, but the roles of Sunderland’s full-backs also played a vital role in ensuring that whilst Sunderland were dangerous in transition either opponents weren’t.
To achieve this, both McFadzean and McLaughlin prioritised their defensive shape over offering a threat on the overlap. If we take the example of Charlie Wyke’s second goal pictured below, as Luke O’Nien and Josh Scowen have gone into the box, McLaughlin and McFadzean have been more conservative in their positioning and have tucked into the inside channel in order to fill the space vacated by the forward runs of the midfielders.
This meant that the most dangerous spaces for counter-attacks, quite obviously through the middle, was covered by Sunderland’s full-backs but in a way that allowed them easy access to defend the flanks if this is where Doncaster broke, whilst Lee Johnson’s side were still able to get five players into the opposition penalty when the ball was in wide areas.
This does not mean that McLaughlin and McFadzean didn’t overlap at all, McFadzean produced a decoy run for McGeady to cut inside and cross for Wyke’s third, but when they did Sunderland made sure to have at least two players in the middle of the pitch to prevent Power from being isolated just as Leadbitter was against Wigan.