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Talking Tactics: How Lee Johnson’s surprising substitutions sent Sunderland to Wembley

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The lads booked a third date at Wembley in three years with a penalty victory over Lincoln. However, for a better part of an hour, we failed to impress live on Sky again, until Lee Johnson’s substitutions changed the game.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Lee Johnson made two personnel changes from the rout against Doncaster, with Grant Leadbitter and Dan Neil replacing Conor McLaughlin and Dion Sanderson. Both were enforced changes, as McLaughlin had been carrying a knock pre-game while Sanderson is cup-tied. As a result, Luke O’Nien and Max Power both moved back into defence, at centre-back and on the right respectively.

They were once again lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, having done so since Lee Johnson claimed he would return the side “back-to-basics”. Now, that does often translate from manager into English as reading them the riot act. But since then we have seemed far more stable in possession, give up less space defensively and Lynden Gooch & Josh Scowen in particular cover a load of ground to ensure Charlie Wyke is not too isolated up top.

Our defensive selection issues were laid bare even further, however, as Bailey Wright was forced off at half-time with a tight calf. Lee Johnson said after the game it was precautionary and hopes his defensive leader will be fit for Burton at the weekend.


Difficult Start

The first-half was an incredibly dull affair. Both us and Lincoln were happy to play more conservatively, as defensive solidity was paramount. It played out like a typical semi-final composed of the two most defensively solid sides in the league. Both made too many mistakes on the ball, and the nerves of potentially playing at Wembley clearly took hold.

Lynden Gooch picked up some excellent positions as he consistently found space in the first half, however, he frustratingly couldn’t find much end product with all the ball and territorial advantage he smartly found. Within the first 20 minutes alone he had already given the ball away five times and completed 0% of his attempted dribbles. Gooch did quite effectively support Wyke in the attack, however, as his new role isn’t just hugging the right touchline as Jack Diamond is instructed to do, but it seems Gooch is the main support figure for Wyke, to ensure old ‘big f*ck, small c*ck’ himself doesn’t get too isolated.

In general, our attacking players found it difficult to gel. Easy passes were given away too often and Lincoln’s deep defensive line was barely troubled. I presumed at the time this may have been intentional as a result of the magnitude of the game and quality of the opposition central defenders on the ball. However, LJ after the game did claim that this was quite the opposite, and merely down to a slow start.

Under the new boss, we actually have been one of the highest performing pressing teams in the entirety of Europe. That is not a typo, it isn’t even an opinion. It is a mere fact. Only Dortmund have more defensive actions in the final third completed, while Porto and Bayer Leverkusen a lower PPDA:

  1. Porto: 4.57
  2. Bayer Leverkusen: 4.63
  3. Sunderland: 4.69
  4. Leicester: 4.81
  5. Southampton: 5.03
  6. Braga: 5.06
  7. Dortmund: 5.07

To spell it out, PPDA is one of the key stats towards figuring out a team’s ability to gegenpress, and is generally the most accurate metric for judging a sides’ effectiveness at pressing. PPDA is the number of opponents passes allowed before a successful defensive action is completed. A defensive action is a tackle, interception, foul committed, blocked pass or clearance. These figures take fouls out of the equation due to the inconsistency amidst the quantity of fouling across different leagues & cultures within.

Our PPDA40 (passes allowed within the opponents 40% of the pitch) is one of the highest in Europe, as is our average defensive line. Incredibly our defensive line on average spent more time in Doncaster’s half than their own in the 4-0 victory at the weekend.

However, we were far too deep in the opening exchanges and our pressing off the ball was slack. Far too often it wasn’t activated until they had entered our own half - which isn’t really pressing, it is reacting. Part of this was down to Lincoln’s own personnel. Monstma and Grant in particular are excellent at breaking a press thanks to their own ability on the ball, but we simply weren’t active enough. The energy levels weren’t there, but this changed later in the game.


Effective Substitutions

As a result of Wright’s injury, we had a makeshift defence of two central midfielders and two full-backs for the entire second half. And to be fair, they did a stellar job considering.

Lincoln’s fast wingers were given a few openings by slack positioning at times, but for the most part, they stood up to the best side in the league excellently. Luke O’Nien, once again, needs to be singled out for praise. He is actually our fourth most successful aerial threat this season and started in a two-man central defence for the first time.

One positioning error let Eyoma in late, while a poor challenge at a corner gave Monstma his one big chance. But these aside, Luke was absolutely everywhere. He completed 13 defensive actions and 88% of his passes, the majority of which were progressive.

CMac also made one particularly immense goal-saving tackle in the second-half while Power was as solid-as-ever and Callum McFadzean had his best game in red and white. He still made a few errors, but his positioning was much improved, and he was a genuine threat in attack. It’s a low bar, but he is on the right path at least.

However, as the game wore on it became clear our midfield wasn’t quite working. Perhaps the introduction of Leadbitter forced those ahead to compensate for his penchant to play the game slower and deeper than Max, or maybe the omission of O’Nien removed some of that crucial energy from either side of the 6.

In truth, I'm not sure. I expected Grant to be withdrawn to protect him for the weekend, but Johnson made a bold double sub that pretty much nobody saw coming.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Papa John’s Trophy Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

He replaced Josh Scowen and Dan Neil in midfield with Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch - who were instructed with pressing up as high as physically possible. This morphed the formation into a 4-3-3 / 4-1-3-2 in which we had five attacking players pushed really high upon Lincoln’s defence.

Initially, Lincoln scored straight away. This was partly due to the more space afforded as we adjusted, but also a poor refereeing decision and lax marking. But after the restart, Lincoln absolutely crumbled under our enormous pressure. We pressed their central defenders in their own six-yard box and for the remainder of the match, they could barely string a pass together. From the 70th minute onwards only 2% of the game took place in our defensive third.

I’ve never seen a sub like this before. It took about 5 minutes just for anyone to figure out what he was doing, and since Jorge Grant and co were totally pegged back onto their 18-yard line it allowed us to absolutely dictate everything from the entry to their final third all the way back to our own goal. In truth, we were wasteful by the end.

Jimmy in his Player Ratings summed Wyke up brilliantly:

Wyke’s chance off Diamond’s cross was golden, and I can’t believe he didn’t score. But the one he did, was absolutely brilliant. Monstma was touch tight until Wyke side-stepped, powered his way forwards with a perfectly timed run and an unbelievable finish. It’s one of the best-headed goals I’ve seen since a certain tall, pony-tail haired striker up the road’s against Sweden for England.

Due to the height and power on the ball, there was no way he could just glance it or use the flight of the ball to his advantage, but it was all in the timing, the use of his neck muscles and ability to get down almost half his own height to get there in the first place.

Charles ‘Entertainment’ Wyke - what a header.