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Talking Tactics: How Sunderland’s tactical switch backfired - but super-subs saved them

Phil Butler strips back Sunderland’s performance at Crewe - our switch to a back four backfired, but what did Lee Johnson do right in order for the game to swing back in our favour by the end?

The Teams

Crewe were in decent form coming into this game, and a record of just three defeat in their last 16 league games shows that, despite being a newly promoted side, David Artell’s side are not pushovers.

They named an unchanged side after beating Accrington two-nil during midweek. Starting in a 4-4-2 formation, Dave Richards started in goal, protected by a back four of Donvervon Daniels, Nathan Wood, Omar Beckles and Harry Pickering. Luke Murphy and Ryan Wintle started in the middle of the park, flanked by Tom Lowery and Charlie Kirk. Former Sunderland player Mikael Madron partnered Chris Porter upfront.

After winning the last couple of games to nil, it was no surprise to see Lee Johnson make as few changes as possible with Josh Scowen’s return to midfield in place of Grant Leadbitter the only personnel from Tuesday’ win over Fleetwood Town.

Despite starting that game with a back three, it was a successful switch to 4-2-3-1 that led to Sunderland’s two goals and this is the formation which Lee Johnson’s side started in against Crewe. Lee Burge continued in goal, with Conor McLaughlin, Dion Sanderson, Luke O’Nien and Callum McFadzean making up the back four. Max Power took up Grant Leadbitter’s deep-lying role in front of the back four, alongside Josh Scowen. In forward areas, Lynden Gooch made the switch from right-wing-back to a second striker, with the two Aidens O’Brien and McGeady starting on the right and left wings respectively. Charlie Wyke continued as the lone striker.

Sunderland weren’t at races for the vast majority of the game, and with the analytics giving a 73% chance of a Crewe victory its easy to view this game tactically as a two-nil defeat for Lee Johnson’s side who relied on two screamers to rescue a point from the jaws of defeat. However, despite being outplayed and out-thought by the home side, it was a couple of changes in tactics and personnel which allowed Sunderland to get back into the game.

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

Sunderland’s back four meant a lack of width

Despite its success during the second half against Fleetwood Lee Johnson’s decision to line up with a back four, first as a 4-2-3-1 with Gooch behind Wyke then as a 4-2-2-2 with Wyke and O’Brien up top, completely backfired as the home side took what looked like an unassailable two-goal lead into half time.

The manager’s decision to use O’Brien instead of Gooch on the right side indicates that the intention was for Sunderland’s full-backs to provide the width with a narrow front four occupying Crewe’s central defenders and two holding midfielders. However, in McLaughlin and McFadzean Sunderland had full-backs without the necessary pace required to provide width operating from the deeper positions of a back four.

Despite the formation change, Sunderland looked to use a similar tactic in their build-up play as has been the case in the last couple of games. O’Brien and McGeady both looked to come deep and drift inside in order to provide a link between defence and attack, but whilst in the previous games Sunderland used wing-backs to run beyond these inverted wingers - Gooch’s performance against Burton is a perfect example of this - on Saturday it was only Gooch who threatened in behind the home side’s defensive line, and his central position only served to highlight Sunderland’s lack of width.

This is shown clearly by the average positions below, with the full-backs and wing backs from the Crewe (left) and Burton (right) games circled in red. As you can see, at Burton Gooch and Vokins spent most of their time deep in the opposition half, and provided width to Sunderland’s attacks as a result, whereas on Saturday the two wingers made similar movements inside, but the space this left outside them wasn’t filled by McLaughlin and McFadzean. If Lee Johnson wants to utilise inverted wingers on both sides, he needs to consider reverting back to a three-man defence.


Sunderland outnumbered in defence

Just as Sunderland’s back four failed to provide Sunderland with the attacking impetus to hurt Saturday’s opposition, the decision to field just two centre backs up against Crewe’s two six-foot-plus strikers was a strange one.

You need a good performance from two natural centre-halves to go one-on-one up against two physical strikers, never mind a defensive partnership that includes a natural midfielder, and the ability of the home side’s front two to drag the Sunderland defence out of position contributed directly to the home side’s opening goal.

The first image below shows Mikael Mandron asking Wintle (number 4) for the ball to be played into the channel between O’Nien and Sanderson (positioned out of the picture to the left).

Wintle duly obliged, and Mandron managed to get goalside of the Luke O’Nien which left McFadzean to mark Porter.

But, McFadzean failed to tuck inside and Porter was allowed to tap home relatively unmarked from the edge of the six-yard box.

Now, there’s obviously the individual by McFadzean who failed to cover when O’Nien was pulled out wide by Mandron, but the wide spaces between Sanderson, O’Nien and McFadzean are only possible because Lee Johnson chose to switch to a back four, and the good movement of Mandron especially - who also assisted the second goal - made Sunderland pay.

Five Substitutions got Sunderland back in the game

Despite completely dominating most of the game, and limiting Sunderland to just three touches inside their penalty area, Crewe were forced to settle for a point due to two stunning strikes from range first by Jordan Jones and then by Chris Maguire.

Although it would be giving too much credit to Sunderland to say that the four substitutes (Jones, Maguire, Diamond and Winchester) meant Sunderland were “on top” in the final 20 minutes, there was a marked improvement from Lee Johnson’s side after these changes.

First of all, Callum McFadzean’s departure meant that Conor McLaughlin went over to left-back, and plugged the rather obvious gap which was present on that side of the Sunderland defence.

But, perhaps more importantly the inclusion of Jones and Diamond - for McGeady and Gooch - gave Sunderland the width in the attack which simply wasn’t present until these changes were made. Jones is much more of a natural winger than McGeady, who looks to drop deep and cut inside in order to create for his teammates, and his positioning high and side not only lead to his goal which halved the deficit but also won Sunderland a couple of free-kicks which could have led to the away team taking all three points.

Jack Diamond was quieter on the right side, but his similar tendency to remain wide helped to open the space in central areas for Sunderland’s other attacking players. Sunderland know all too well how teams who play 4-4-2, as Crewe did on Saturday, can be vulnerable to sides which play with width, and it's a shame that it took us so long to figure this out at the weekend.

Finally, Chris Maguire’s equaliser in the seventh minute of injury time is basic in tactical terms. A long ball by Burge was flicked on by Charlie Wyke before Maguire smashed it into the net on the second bounce, but it's difficult to see the man he replaced - Aiden O’Brien - taking the game by the scruff of the neck in a similar fashion.

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