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Talking Tactics: Sunderland’s formation was left wanting against MK Dons in both attack and defence

What went wrong and what went right for Lee Johnson and Sunderland on Saturday afternoon? Phil Butler delves deep into the tactics and analytics behind our disappointing draw away at MK Dons...

The Teams

Unsurprisingly, there was a number of changes from the twenty-two players that started this fixture in the Papa John’s Trophy last Tuesday.

MK Dons made five changes to the side that Sunderland defeated by three goals to nil in midweek, starting in goal with Andrew Fisher coming in for Lee Nicholls.

Harry Darling came into the middle of the back three in place of Lasse Sorensen - meaning Louis Thompson stepped into midfield. Both wing backs Ethan Laird and Zak Jules were additions to the side, replacing Matthew Sorinola and Daniel Harvie. Finally, Cameron Jerome came in for Lewis Johnson to partner Joe Mason in front as the Dons switched to a 3-1-4-2 formation from the 3-5-1-1 they used on Tuesday.

Sunderland went one better than their hosts by making six changes to a winning team from Papa Johns Trophy action. Lee Burge returned in goal in place of Remi Matthews. Bailey Wright and Jake Vokins replaced Tom Flanagan and Callum McFadzean in defence. Grant Leadbitter and Aiden McGeady replaced Josh Scowen and Jordan Jones in midfield, with Charlie Wyke’s introduction for Jack Diamond prompting Lynden Gooch to drop back to the right side of midfield. Despite switching to 3-4-3 for the latter part of the game on Tuesday night, Lee Johnson continued with the 4-4-2 formation he has used for the majority of games since the turn of the year.

It was, in part, a game of two halves and Sunderland were lucky to get into half time with the scores level after being completely outplayed by Russell Martin’s side despite taking the lead early on through Charlie Wyke. Lee Johnson’s side improved just before half time and were better in the second 45, although MK Dons’ xG of 2.98 - the most a side has achieved against Sunderland since February 2018 - compared with our own xG of 1.72 indicates a point may have flattered the Black Cats.

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Lessons weren’t learned from Tuesday night

A slightly worrying theme of Sunderland’s defence under the management of Lee Johnson is his side’s struggles to defend the wide areas against teams who play with a three-man defence and wing backs. Sunderland got away with this in the one-nil win at home to Shrewsbury a couple of weeks ago, but Johnson was sufficiently worried about the threat of MK Dons’ wing backs on Tuesday night to match-up with Russell Martin’s side and play 3-4-3 for the majority of the second half.

Despite this good piece of in-game management in the first game against the Dons, Sunderland started with a four-man defence on Saturday, and it was no surprise to see the majority of MK Dons’ threat come from wide areas through wing-backs Ethan Laird and Zak Jules.

The threat of the Dons’ wing-back formation was allowed to continue throughout the game by a couple of Sunderland’s tactics, their 4-2-2-2 formation and the pressing tactics of the front two, which combined to leave Jake Vokin especially exposed on his debut.

Like most teams that line up against a three-man defence, Sunderland were outnumbered by the home side when the Dons’ back three had possession in deep areas. As a result, the front two of Charlie Wyke and Aiden O’Brien were happy to the middle centre-back Harry Darling time on the ball, a pressing tactic they also used against Shrewsbury’s back-three, and instead looked to block passing lanes to the midfield and to close down the wide centre-backs.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by John Cripps/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This strategy was relatively successful against aside in Shrewsbury that used a centre-back uncomfortable on the ball in this position, but Russell Martin’s side is more technically gifted than The Shrews and Harry Darling was an effective ball-player in this area. The time and space Sunderland allowed him meant he was able to pick out long-range passes to Ethan Laird who had advanced up the pitch due to the time afforded to the Dons’ defender in the first phase of build-up play.

The high positioning of the wing-backs Laird and Jules, facilitated by Sunderland’s lower pressing line, also meant that the Dons were able to create overloads in a number of different areas against Sunderland’s 4-2-2-2 formation - despite Sunderland accepting numerical inferiority upfront.

The natural inclination of Sunderland’s wide midfielders, especially Aiden McGeady on the left, is to attack and leave the tracking of wingers to their full-backs and whilst this means the MK Dons’ “front four” (two wing backs and two strikers) were matched by the Sunderland back four, it allowed heaps of space for the home side’s two midfielders - Scott Fraser and Matt O’Riley - to pick the ball up in dangerous areas just on the edge of the Sunderland box, the area from which dangerous chances are created.

Perhaps most frustratingly, Sunderland only needed to match up one of these threats from the Dons to make it more difficult for the home side to create good quality chances. Either switching to a back five - which Johnson did successfully on Tuesday night - to allow Sunderland an extra man in the middle to close down space on the edge of the box, or dropping an extra man into midfield - allowing Grant Leadbitter to patrol this area in which Fraser and O’Riley were allowed to roam.


Why weren’t Sunderland’s chances as dangerous as Dons’?

Despite outscoring the home side in both total shots and shots on target, Sunderland still scored roughly one goal fewer in terms of xG than MK Dons indicating that the quality of chances created by Russell Martin’s side was greater than those created by Lee Johnson’s men.

The simple explanation for this is the Sunderland failed to receive the ball with space in dangerous areas of the pitch, namely those spaces picked up by Fraser and O’Riley for the home side. Only Aiden McGeady picked up similar positions for Sunderland, and it is no surprise to see him assist both of the away side’s goals from the inside left channel.

What limited Sunderland’s ability to create more chances from these dangerous positions was partly caused by the home side’s deployment of a holding midfielder - first Louis Thompson and then Andrew Surman - who had the simple task of preventing Sunderland from getting the ball in these areas and left the chance creation to his fellow midfielders.

However, I’m wary about giving too much credit to MK Dons for preventing this threat, since Aiden O’Brien - as well as the aforementioned McGeady - was also able to pick up the ball in dangerous areas, but lacked the quality to turn his possession into chances for his fellow attackers. The conundrum of Aiden O’Brien will undoubtedly be providing Lee Johnson with a minor headache until Ross Stewart returns to fitness to take his place because - like Charlie Wyke last season - the former Millwall attacker is low on quality in-possession, but picks up good positions better than the vast majority of his teammates.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by John Cripps/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The role of Sunderland’s full backs also highlights how MK Dons weren’t completely responsible for the away side’s lack of clear-cut chances. As the xThreat heatmap in the above gallery shows, Jake Vokins offered almost no threat on the overlap beyond Aiden McGeady, and the threat offered high and wide on Sunderland’s right-side came mainly from right-winger Gooch rather than right-back Power.

Unlike when MK Dons attacked at the other end of the pitch, this means the defensive side had a numerical advantage when facing up against Sunderland’s attacks. Since Vokins and Power didn’t occupy the Dons’ wing-backs, Laird and Jules were able to help the back three out with defending against Gooch and McGeady which left the home side with a three vs two up against Wyke and O’Brien. Add the home side’s holding midfielder to this mix, and it's clear to see why Sunderland struggled to good quality chances relative to the number of shots they had.

The difficulties Sunderland faced in creating chances through the middle of the pitch perhaps stem from an inability to win the battle for control in midfield. We know that Grant Leadbitter has the quality to dictate play at this level, but he wasn’t allowed the space to do so in a midfield where Lee Johnson allowed MK Dons to have an extra man.

Instead, the main player in Sunderland's build-up play was right-back Max Power who completed the task of breaking lines with his passing well, but this shifted the majority of Sunderland’s build-up play to the right side and, combined with McGeady’s drifting inside and the lack of overlapping from Vokins, only worsened the lack of space for Sunderland in those important areas for creating chances - around the edge of the 18-yard-box.