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Talking Tactics: How Lee Johnson’s tactical tweaks sealed Sunderland’s place in the semi finals

Lee Johnson’s direct and pacey Sunderland side clinically finished off the fake Dons in the first of two encounters at the Stadium MK this week. Here’s how they did it.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Papa John’s Trophy Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Same Line-Up, Different Approach

Lee Johnson set the Lads us in his favoured 4-2-2-2 formation early on, making four changes from the side that drew with Gillingham on Saturday afternoon. Remi Matthews, Luke O’Nien and Lynden Gooch all replaced Lee Burge, Grant Leadbitter and Charlie Wyke in their usual respective positions, while new-signing Jordan Jones made his Sunderland debut, replacing Aiden McGeady in the Starting XI.

Away from his usual approach, however, Johnson adapted to MK Dons’ own possession-based style. The plan early on was clearly to surrender the ball to the home side, and counter with pace when the opportunity presented itself. For the most part, and especially early on, the home side were limited to exchanging passes from central defence to midfield, as the Lads pressed very high up the pitch.

Direct Attacking

Immediately upon taking the job as Head Coach, Lee Johnson hinted at the fact that he would both like us to play faster football, and add some pace into the side. It seems that at least 50% of his winter signings have been geared towards addressing it, and Jordan Jones did exactly that with aplomb. The former-Rangers winger made numerous direct runs towards the channel and the final third during his hour on the pitch - with two, in particular, looking auspicious & hopefully a sign of things to come.

In general, though, Sunderland attacked with far more purpose and far faster than we have seen in recent weeks, with arguably only the game at Lincoln away producing faster counter-attacks. MK Dons’ willingness to push high lefts gaps and the gaffer instructed his players to expose just this. He’s also mentioned of late wanting to play Gooch in a central, attacking role, specifically stating that he can see him as a “False 9.5”.

Here, Gooch picked up numerous great positions in the half-spaces between the opposition’s lines, and the goal came directly from this. Aiden O’Brien has his limitations, but on current standing, he is probably the best attacker in the side with his back to goal (not counting Ross Stewart, who has yet played a minute in red & white). He won an aerial challenge, finding Gooch, who in-turn released Diamond at just the right time, and his cross to O’Brien towards the back-post was deflected in off Dean Lewington for the opener.

As usual, Diamond patrolled the right-flank, almost exclusively staying wide in attacks. But aside from that, the rest of the attack favoured runs into the channels and the central third of the pitch, a far cry from the football we saw under Phil Parkinson that eventually became just a practice of how quickly we could launch the ball wide at every opportunity.

Even after the tactical switch - more on that later - we favoured attacking at pace and very rarely did you see a Sunderland player dwell on the ball for too long. This negated MK Dons’ ability to return to their defensive third as quickly and led to every big chance. We are the second-most successful team in the division at completing deep progressions (passes and moves into the final 20 metres of the pitch) in the division, and today that happened on eight different occasions - a mean feat considering MK are behind only us for both final third entries conceded and deep completions conceded this season.

High Press

One feature of Tuesday’s game has been prevalent thus far in just about every match under Johnson - the high press. However, due to the sheer pace and energy on show and MK’s own tendency to pander on the ball for far too long, it seemed to be more effective here than prior. Jones, Diamond and Gooch completed a combined six tackles and attempted 31 ground duels - the former completed 15 combined - and a vast majority of these were in the opposition’s final third. All four members of the attack worked tirelessly to press MK’s defensive partnership throughout, and each of their central defenders’ had their worst passing completion percentages of 2021 so far as a result.

For far too often in League One, and in particular, under Parkinson, we have seen a team deployed in red and white sitting far too deep and inviting pressure onto ourselves. In spite of dominating possession, the hosts did not dominate territory and only had one “big chance” all-game. Sunderland spent 26% of our time on the ball in MK Don’s final third while the host’s only spent 29% in our own third - this is incredibly close considering they completed 515 passes compared to our own 350. In fact, 40% of all completed passes by MK Dons were by their three central defenders. O’Nien and Scowen played a crucial role in midfield in supporting the front four in the second-phase of pressing, completing 50% of the entire team’s successful tackles alone.

It is good to see the side clearly given a tactical plan and performing it to aplomb off the ball. We have the best xGA in the league, and clearly, a large part of our mean defence (not accounting for individual errors) begins right at the top in the attack.

General play areas in the match.


In the first half, MK’s most dangerous attacks and biggest chances came from a pair of Tom Flanagan errors. For the first, his poor positioning and body shape resulted in a skewed touch which fell to Joe Mason in the penalty area. The second was almost a rinse and repeat of Jordan Graham’s late goal last week. He came flying out of his position to intercept a ball, missed it and vacated 10 yards of space right in the middle of the box. He needs to cut these out, however, both moves came from exposing the space in the flanks.

I just want to take some time here to credit Luke O’Nien. He has barely played of late, being wisely nurtured back after a long injury lay-off. However, tonight he played in three positions and has been better in all of them than any of the others who play there week-in, week-out. Be it in the middle, at left-back or LCB, he was easily the best player on the pitch, and it is no wonder neither Johnson nor O’Nien himself know what his best position is. For what it is worth, I think he has a higher ceiling as a right-back in the future, but right now, he offers something different in the CM from anyone else aside from maybe Dan Neil.

Clearly, our plan was to pack the central areas of the pitch and willingly surrender possession both deep and out wide to MK once they entered our own half. However, today was the first time we have seen a real double-pivot in midfield that has the design intention to cover our full-backs, allowing the wingers to push as high up the pitch as possible.

With this came mixed-poor results, with MK Dons’ marauding wing-backs consistently exposing the space behind Max Power and Callum McFadzean. Power, in particular, struggled in the first-half with this, clearly affected by the numerical advantage the hosts experienced out wide. This pinned us back for part of the first half and was a large reason as to why we didn’t have a shot on target at half-time. O’Brien is solid back to goal and wins quite a few headers, but he just doesn’t have the ability on the deck to really make the ball stick up top when we are under the cosh at the back.

Neil came on after just 26 minutes and looked very comfortable on the ball. As soon as he was introduced our ability to progress from deep just increased ten-fold. He really does exude class at times considering his age. However, changing formation in the second-half largely negated a lot of the opposition’s threat.

McGeady, O’Nien, Neil, Younger, Gooch
The Lads celebrating after Gead’s game-winning goal
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Tactical Tweaks

On the hour-mark, Lee Johnson made the first quadruple substitution in Sunderland’s history. Charlie Wyke, Aiden McGeady, Grant Leadbitter & Ollie Younger all replaced O’Brien, Jones, Scowen and Willis in their respective positions, with the team picking up an entirely different 3-4-3 formation.

This highlighted our enormous strength-in-depth at this level, with each performing well as they came on. O’Nien moved into the left of the three central defenders while Lynden Gooch equally dropped back to LWB. It was good man-management from Johnson, as all four who came off have either a hell of a lot of games under their belt of late or have been nursing small injuries. It was also a risk, however, changing so many players at once could have resulted in a total loss of control of the game defensively.

Furthermore, the tactical shift totally negated any threat that MK had up until this point. Gone was the freedom of the city on the wings, and they had to resort to pinging it long to Cameron Jerome. Flanagan had a nervy first-half, but this is his game and he dealt well with the aerial threat.

Wyke and Geads added some late clinical finishes to put a gloss on a result in which we surrendered a lot of the ball but were not dominated in any way and looked in control throughout. On this evidence, I’d personally like to see Geads deployed in a similar manner in the league, and in no way is this detrimental to his own game. We need to start with pure pace out wide.

Then, when the Irishman is introduced late on he is technically proficient and smart enough to not have to take time to get into the game, is a nightmare for tired legs & won't tire after 60 played as he does from the start.

Tonight really highlights some of the academy lads too. Ollie Younger again had a solid outing while Dan Neil and Jack Diamond were two of our best players and most effective attacking weapons on the pitch. It doesn’t always work out, but you bet when it does for them, it leads to something important.

It was by far from a perfect game, and we still have a lot of areas to improve - but it is nonetheless promising, and we rarely looked like losing throughout the 90. Johnson got his tactics mostly right, and the personnel changes likewise were smart.

Lee Johnson Sunderland
Lee Johnson and Jamie McAllister watch on from the touchline
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

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