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Gegenpress & Sunderland: How The Lads have utilised the press to full effect in a 4-3-3

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It’s been a canny week on the pitch for Sunderland - what has Lee Johnson changed tactically to make his side look more effective both on and off the ball?

Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sunderland chose to switch their formation last weekend v Doncaster and worked well. This was then replicated v Lincoln midweek. Why did the tweaks work? Watching the footage shows us how a change in approach and basics can make win matches.


Formation Change

The most discussed and notable thing when two o’clock struck last Saturday, and the teams were announced, was that Sunderland opted for a 4-3-3, previously using a 4-2-2-2.

Sunderland’s formation change from 4-2-2-2 (right) to 4-3-3 (left)

4-2-2-2 is not a bad formation in my opinion, but I feel like the system doesn’t compliment the players that we have available. We have Jordan Jones, Aiden McGeady, Aiden O’Brien and Lynden Gooch who suit the winger role. 4-2-2-2, as per the visual above, is quite a narrow formation, which can create more issues defensively.


Out of Possession

Gegenpress is a system which has really emerged in football in the previous decade. For people who don’t know what it is, Gegenpress is a style of play is associated with pressing high up the pitch to apply quick pressure to the player on the opposite team with the ball. Notable teams who use this system right now are Liverpool, Bayer Leverkusen and Porto.

When we faced Doncaster last weekend, Sunderland utilising this system was most apparent. Check out the visual below - you can see how great we press from a Doncaster throw-in early on in the match.

Figure 1 - Sunderland line up for a throw in high in their own half.

Now we do leave a huge gap on the left of the picture, but Gegenpress works that way. You press high and take the risk of leaving space behind. If you press correctly then you can win it back by forcing an error.

Figure 2 - Luke O’Nien applies pressure to Doncaster, forcing them backwards

Highlighted for Sunderland is O’Nien, who is doing the running in the Gegenpress. He sprints to prevent Doncaster from playing attacking football. This forces Doncaster to pass back, which is where the grey arrow leads to.

Figure 3 - O’Nien continues to press

At this stage we should start crediting the other players for positioning themselves correctly. Wyke moves to cover their right back, and circled at the bottom is Gooch. O’Nien continues to press, and the defenders body position indicates he is left-footed, and may pass where the grey arrow is.

With all three players pushed high up the field, Doncaster are now pinned back and have lost any advantage from the throw-in.

Figure 4 - Sunderland now have successfully used Gegenpress to push Doncaster back in their own third

Bailey Wright’s basic football

Bailey Wright is a brilliant defender for a team in this division. I highlighted his swift decision-making against Shrewsbury on Twitter, where he clears his lines to avoid danger.

Some of you may think “well... this is obvious, defenders should do that!”

That isn’t always the case - watch any game of football, and you can find a defender trying to run out of defence or pass into trouble.

Wright starts off the second goal by just playing safe, clearing the danger.

Figure 5 - Sunderland clear the danger

There’s a lot going on, so let’s start with the red arrows, which indicate where the ball has just gone. Sanderson passes to McLaughlin, who passes to Wright, who then hits the ball to Wyke. In the white zone is the space that Doncaster have, should they re-gain quick possession. If Wright doesn’t clear then it, the space is there for Doncaster to move into.

Figure 6 - Wyke’s first touch lays it off for Sunderland to break away

Wyke manages to control the clearance really well. That first touch put Sunderland in a 4v4 scenario, and Doncaster’s back line are now in trouble.

Figure 7 - Sunderland take advantage of the space

Scowen passes the ball to McGeady. Using 4-3-3 is brilliant here, as Mcgeady is naturally out wide and 1v1 with the left back, heading towards the box. In a 4-2-2-2, Mcgeady should be where the ball is coming from, and nobody is out wide. Sunderland score from the resulting McGeady cross, and it all starts from sensible defending by Bailey Wright.


Attempting to eliminate our defensive gremlins

Max Power spent the game in a holding midfield role, mainly in a bid to combat some of our defensive issues. We often lose runners in the box, or don’t stop crosses. Grant Leadbitter did this job also against Lincoln, but with less success.

Figure 8 - Doncaster attacking Sunderland

Sunderland defend narrow here. I know it looks bad, but if we defend wide then the space is also there down the middle of the pitch.

Luckily, Doncaster were quite wasteful here and should have passed the ball to the grey arrow on the right. Instead, they shot and turned the ball over.

Figure 9 - Doncaster waste a good chance

With some better decision-making in the final third, they could have punished us. With the grey arrows, you can see the space to score in. Max Power is highlighted as the holding midfielder. He realises the danger and begins to drift out to Left Back to cover for defending narrow.


Conclusions - Will 4-3-3 & Gegenpress stick around?

This is something we should stick with, for now.

Football does evolve and so do tactics.

Portsmouth were the first team to crack the code with our defence when they won 3-1 in October - many teams will watch that footage and aim to copy Portsmouth’s game plan.

4-3-3 suits the squad well. Looking at how many central midfielders we have, and the fact we have only two out-and-out centre forwards in Wyke and Stewart, playing in this way makes it easier for rotation during a hectic schedule for Sunderland.

Gegenpress can also be adopted more frequently, as we have the right players - such as Luke O’Nien - to make it stick. His energy and work rate is what makes Gegenpress a success. The only players I don’t expect to press heavily in central midfield is Leadbitter and Power. These two are suited to playing deeper on the ball.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Papa John’s Trophy Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images