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Talking Tactics: Sunderland change formation again, and win again!

With an injury crisis at the back, Lee Johnson started with a three-man defence for the first time as Sunderland manager. Here’s how his change in tactics enabled Sunderland to comfortably dispatch of Burton Albion at the Pirelli Stadium.

The Teams

With Bailey Wright’s injury meaning Lee Johnson had only one fit centre back available for this game, he lined his side up in a 3-4-3 formation despite two good performances playing a 4-3-3 in the past two matches. Lee Burge continued in goal, with Conor McLaughlin, Dion Sanderson and Luke O’Nien making up the back three. Lynden Gooch dropped back to wing-back from his right-wing position, with Luke Vokins coming in for Callum McFadzean on the left. In midfield, Grant Leadbitter and Max Power formed a double pivot with Aiden O’Brien and Aiden McGeady supporting Charlie Wyke upfront.

Burton started in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Ben Garratt in goal protected by a back four of John Brayford, Hyden Carter, Michael Bostwick and Josh Earl. Ryan Edwards and Sean Clare started at the base of midfield, with Jonny Smith, Ryan Broom and Josh Edwards supporting lone striker Lucas Akins. This formation lasted only half an hour before, with Sunderland two-nil up and cruising, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink switched to a 3-4-2-1 formation by dropping Smith to right-wing-back and Brayford tucking into right-centre-back.

Sunderland put in what was their most complete performance of the season, and completely outplayed the home side who were unable to lay a glove on Lee Johnson’s team. Although Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has been in attendance for the last couple of weeks, this was the first official game of the new era, and it’s difficult not to reflect on the most memorable game between these two sides - a defeat at the Stadium of Light in April 2017 which sealed Sunderland's relegation to League One - and hope that Saturday’s win signals the start of a new, successful period at Sunderland AFC.

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

Change in Formation

Given the choice between playing either Conor McLaughlin or Luke O’Nien alongside Dion Sanderson at the heart of the Sunderland defence, Lee Johnson chose to play all three players and to change his formation in order to protect his make-shift backline.

Although many Sunderland fans will be suffering from PTSD after watching Phil Parkinson’s interpretation of a back three, the iteration served up by the men in Blue and Red on Saturday could not have been more different from the passive 5-3-2 we saw under our previous manager.

As always when playing a 3-4-3, the wingbacks were vital in dictating the gameplan for Sunderland; both Lynden Gooch and Jake Vokins pushed high up the pitch when Sunderland had extended spells of possession and when they looked to press the Burton defenders.

The high positioning of the wing-backs during Sunderland’s press meant that, despite the change in shape, Sunderland still pressed with four players backing up Charlie Wyke, with the “wingers” O’Brien and McGeady taking up central positions to block passes from Burton’s centre backs to their midfield, and the wing-backs pressuring Burton’s full-backs.

McGeady, Vokins, Wyke, O’Brien and Gooch (out of picture) pressed the Burton defence as a front five.

When Sunderland attacked, their wing-backs picked up similarly advanced positions, and Lynden Gooch especially - whose average position was the highest of any Sunderland player - had the beating of his full-back until Earl got himself sent off for an altercation with Aiden O’Brien.

This was the American winger’s best performance of the season. He played with a simplicity and a directness reminiscent of his time under Jack Ross, when he was given similar instructions to start wide, stay wide and be direct in front of Adam Matthews who played a similar role to that played by Conor McLaughlin on Saturday afternoon.

Lee Johnson has mentioned in interviews that he sees Gooch as a genuine option as one of a front two, and even when playing on the right of a front three in the last couple of games he has played almost alongside Charlie Wyke, but Gooch’s performance on Saturday must make the Sunderland manager ponder on whether or not Gooch could be used to provide Sunderland’s width and to create rather than as a goal-getter.

Change in Style

Short of merely changing formation to compensate for the loss of Bailey Wright, Lee Johnson also changed Sunderland’s style of play to a more possession-based system to help protect his makeshift backline.

In his article on Sunderland’s use of gegenpress, Brandon noted how Sunderland’s defenders looked to play long balls up to, or over, Charlie Wyke in order to enable Sunderland’s attackers to press the opposition high up the pitch rather than allowing the opposite to be done to them.

I noted in last week’s Talking Tactics that this tactic was used instead of using a playmaker in midfield - the direct passing and subsequent pressing taking the place of building up through the lines - but this changed on Saturday by the inclusion of Grant Leadbitter alongside Max Power in midfield.

With Josh Scowen on the bench, this was clearly an optional tactic by Lee Johnson as he sought to protect his defence but it also had the benefit of allowing Sunderland’s five-man defence to become a five-man attack as the circulation of the ball between the back three and the double pivot allowed Vokins and Gooch to take up positions high and wide in the opposition half.

The advanced positions of Gooch and Vokins then allowed the wide players McGeady and O’Brien to move inside and create the ‘box midfield’ that we saw when Sunderland played the 4-2-2-2 formation a couple of weeks ago. The inclusion of O’Brien instead of Diamond or Jones on the right of the front three highlighted Sunderland’s intention to keep possession of the ball rather than looking to create chances through fast transitions and high pressing.

The former Millwall attacker often came deep to get the ball from the holding midfielders, and his movement inside and hold up play was key in dragging Josh Earl out of position and getting Lynden Gooch in behind the Burton defence.

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