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Talking Tactics: Clinical control and game management earn Sunderland’s third win in a row

A forced change to a ‘total football’ style of play has reaped rewards for Lee Johnson’s team. But how have we done it? Here’s an in-depth breakdown of Sunderland’s tactical play against Fleetwood.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Just like last week, Lee Johnson persisted with a 3-4-3 from the outset, in order to protect his defensive line. However, Callum McFadzean replaced Jake Vokins in the lineup as Johnson made his now-customary change.

The 3-4-3 formation was more advanced than at the weekend against Burton - to make use of our home advantage. While there may not be any fans in attendance, the pitch at the SoL is 110m x 75m, with a square area of 8,240m2.

The pitch at this size is one of the largest in the country, the same size as the much-vaunted ‘huge’ pitch at Wembley Stadium. According to FA Regulations, pitch sizes in England must be within 120m and 90m in length and have a width between 45m and 90m. Very few are bigger, in fact only Portman Road and New Meadow (which for some reason is absurdly long but quite narrow).

Thus, the 3-4-3 morphed into a 4-2-2-2 in attack for large swathes, with Conor McLaughlin supporting Lynden Gooch at every opportunity.

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


In his post-match press conference, Lee Johnson praised the ‘control’ that his side had over the opposition. It was not just the excellent combined and individual performances of the defence, but the whole team who utterly dominated Fleetwood both in terms of possession and territory to such an extent that the hosts did not have a single shot on goal (on-target, off-target, or blocked) and completed just four penalty box entries during the entire game.

Part of the reason for this was the ability to dictate the game throughout the side, which Johnson specifically stated after suffering another central defensive injury in the wake of the Lincoln penalty win. He changed the style to a more possession-orientated one, away from counter-pressing, in order to protect the defence and limit both the number of chances and amount of space given to opposition forwards.

Max Power and Grant Leadbitter dictated proceedings for the entire match, with each playing slightly differing roles. Grant was more of a water-carrier, tasked to seemingly keep it more simple and keep us ticking along, while Max was given more licence to try the spectacular. He gave the ball away 21 times, but also completed 76 passes with an accuracy rate of over 80% and had more touches of the ball than any other player on the pitch.

This may not be the first time since relegation that we have won three-in-a-row in the league, but in my reckoning, it is for sure the first time we have now recorded a spate of games in which we have completely and absolutely dominated the opposition and won three games in a row comfortably.

Defensive progression

Jordan Willis’s injury was most unfortunate, and I hope he is given time to fully recover and handed a new contract too. Clearly, he has been playing through the pain barrier for far too long this season and it showed on the pitch. However, his injury has finally paved a route to the first-team for Dion Sanderson to regularly play in his favoured position.

Sanderson has been one of the most improved players under Johnson and is almost certainly going to be a long-term star at a level far above League One. He is, by quite some distance, the best central defender in the squad at progressing the ball vertically up the pitch. He’s also arguably the best at just about everything else too.

While Bailey Wright has a plethora of excellent long-ball options, the pace and verticality at which Sanderson spreads play from the back is crucial to Johnson being able to switch to a more possession-orientated style in recent weeks. Luke O’Nien too, alongside him, plays far more adventurous and risky balls than the rest of the defence while Conor McLaughlin is simple but effective – rarely playing a risky pass but also rarely giving the ball away. The three make a nice balance, and our domination of possession and territory began right at the back.

We actually started the game sluggishly, and part of that was as the defence looked slightly rattled. Easy passes were sent astray, and Sanderson himself picked up an early yellow card for being far too tight on his marker. But as we grew into the game their effect only grew from there. Dion actually has the fourth most accurate passes per game (behind only possession-heavy MK Dons’ first-choice three-man defence) and sixth in passing percentage overall for central defenders this season. In fact, his overall statistics as a defender is among the highest in the league in terms of per 90 metrics – not bad at all considering he’s played half the season out of position and a large swathe under a manager who instructed his central defenders to hit it long as much as possible.

The opposition can’t score if they don’t have the ball.

Accurate Passing % per 90

Tactical switch

In the first half, we lacked a slight cutting edge and guile. Although Aiden McGeady carved open a few big opportunities, the final ball or composure wasn’t quite there. Fleetwood offered absolutely nothing in the final third, but for most of the opening ‘45 they did defend quite resolutely – in particular Callum Connolly. The 20 year-old Everton loanee actually coped with big Charles up top more effectively than any of a plethora of far more experienced defenders have in recent weeks. However, Grayson’s typical style did play to his strengths. He is one of those who is not a defensive manager, but straight up negative. As opposed to trying to match us up and use their midfield numerical advantage, Fleetwood utilised a very deep low-block with eight players constantly sitting deep on the edge of their own box for large swathes.

As a result, we found it hard to break them down in the early stages of the game as the play broke due to the sheer number of opposition defenders swarming our players at every opportunity. Thus, at half-time Lee Johnson switched it up, moving Lynden Gooch narrow to behind the striker and deploying the lads in a 4-2-3-1. Gooch was moved due to his willingness to support the attack and defence, and he did effectively operated between the lines for a while. However, it was sheer quality overall that saw us break the deadlock, as the entire front four operated for narrower in general and overloaded Fleetwood’s inexperienced and much-changed back line. Further subs freshened up the game and brought in some much-needed pace as always.

While this may be the least headline-grabbing win of the recent four, it is important. It has proven we can overcome a packed defence, a bogey side, do not have to only rely on Charlie Wyke’s goals alone, and proves to Lee Johnson that we are capable of his ‘total football’ and totally limiting opponents’ play.

Fleetwood didn’t just play badly, we totally stopped them.

Since the last half-hour against Lincoln, we have only allowed a total of four shots on goal in 210 minutes of football.

In both games since Lee Johnson has claimed we would change style of play, our average defensive line is >10m further down the pitch, yet possession statistics far greater and we are giving away less space for sides to attack us. There has been a clear and immediate shift to a possession-based style as required for the gameplan and personnel available.

It is thoroughly refreshing to see a head coach identify a style, and see that so efficaciously executed on the day.

Actually, it is just nice to see any form of identity.

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