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Talking Tactics: A Sunderland two-man midfield provides game-control for the first time in Pompey win

Lee Johnson outwitted Kenny Jackett in every department as Sunderland won at Portsmouth for the first time in 24 years - here’s how he did it.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Lee Johnson almost named an unchanged team for the first-time this midweek, however, the badly-needed return of Tom Flanagan saw him take a place on the bench, resulting in Ollie Younger dropping out of the squad, Max Power into right back and Josh Scowen coming in to start at central midfield. However, the rest of the side was largely the same - lined up in a 4-2-3-1 as Aiden O’Brien again in a reserved role behind Charlie Wyke with the explicit aim of linking midfield and attack.

Sunderland dominated the game from the off and particularly in the first half. Pompey didn’t have a single big chance, shot on target or penetrating run behind the defence all afternoon as we totally dominated them all across the pitch. After the game, Kenny Jackett discussed how his side got it all wrong “in either box” and were “solid in the middle of the park”. Well, Kenny, that isn’t the case at all. The home side was second-best in absolutely every department on the night, just as the manager was himself in terms of tactics.

The only reason the possession stats ended pretty even was due to the switch to a back-three, as we slowed the tempo right down, protected the two-goal lead, and kept one eye on the big game at the weekend.

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

Double Pivot Works

The only large criticism that has been levelled towards Lee Johnson of late is his penchant to return to a deep midfield two, We have explored in this series numerous times the pitfalls of playing a midfield two, with it particularly leaving us wide open in the half-spaces between midfield and defence and allows the opposition far more control than preferred. Rochdale had this at the weekend, controlling the game.

While we have achieved some excellent results in the past playing a variation of a double-pivot, in most of these games we have still not quite dominated and totally controlled a game, which is why in recent weeks Lee Johnson has preferred a three-man defence or midfield. Crewe was a great case in point, as Mika Mandron would drop deep and expose the areas left wide open by the formation. Mandron has actually created the third-most “big chances” in the league this season and he really exploited this gap. However, last night was the first time in which we have played a double-pivot with a flat back-four and totally controlled and dominated from the off. The reason for this was two-fold.

Firstly, Pompey was absolutely terrified of Charlie Wyke. Kenny Jackett lined his side up quite defensively in terms out outlook, with Andy Cannon and Tom Naylor reserved to protect a defence that shipped four goals at the weekend. Their central defenders were absolutely terrified of the big man all night, making a plethora of easy mistakes on the ball. Part of this seemed tactical from Johnson, as he instructed the entire side to attack the channels far more often, dragging Whatmough and Raggett out of position all over the pitch.

Secondly, however, was the personnel and game plan. Josh Scowen and Carl Winchester really nicely complement each other - one is a terrier on the ball while the other exudes quality. Scowen’s job in the team is to harass, harry, close down space and in general, be an absolute b*astard to the opposition. While Winchester is just unbelievable at constantly picking out space and progressing the ball vertically.

In every game since his return to the side, he has had the highest ratio of forward passes from all central midfielders on the pitch. Ahead of these two was Aiden O’Brien, who again played as a clear 10. LJ isn’t playing him there to create in the final third but purely act as a link for Wyke to work from. His role in the team is to get the whole side up the pitch, work tirelessly in closing down the opposing defence and support his midfield pairing whenever possible.

In terms of personnel, this does still look very much like the 4-2-2-2 we saw earlier in the season, but one simple switch that at least on the night helped us play that fine balance between controlling the game and supporting Wyke up top. He’s learning from his mistakes really quickly, and Kenny Jackett’s own flat 4-4-2 played right into our hands.

Passing statistics across the whole Sunderland side on the night

Attacking Corners

I’ll never forget one particular tactic for corners under Phil Parkinson. I think none of us probably will. But it was that one when the ball would be swung in, and all of our players in the box would lineup in the corner of the penalty area closer to the corner source, and run at goal from there. It never worked. I actually looked back for footage of Parkinson’s Bolton and he tried the same there. I don’t know if they ever scored from it, but one can presume it didn’t work either. It is absolutely ridiculous, as every player is running away from the ball so it just makes your job to get any header on target far more difficult.

Under Lee Johnson, we have often seen a variation of the one pioneered by Danny Cowley at Lincoln and made famous by Gareth Southgate at the 2018 World Cup in which a collection of players form a “train” in order to try and lose their marker. However, a second one, also similar to an England routine, has now led to quite a few goals from corners, as follows:

Max Power or Carl Winchester (in this case the former) is located quite central, and they vacate the space with a quick, early run to the front post. Alongside this, Luke O’Nien acts as a blocker to disrupt Wyke’s marker:

Then, Charlie Wyke enters this massive vacated space with Raggett struggling to keep up and Whatmough too busy hugging Luke O’Nien:

Of course, the entire move relies upon Wyke’s ability to escape his man and finishing ability, but it wasn’t just slack defending from Pompy to allow the division’s leading scorer of headed goals a free header in the penalty area.

LJ has actually improved our set-piece threat quite substantially. You have to question how much work on this was actually done under Parky, considering 70% of our set-piece goals this season (penalties aside) have been since December 5th. As you can see below, we are not massively effective in the air, and nor do we score a huge amount of set-piece goal, but since Johnson’s arrival we have more headed goals than any other side and among the most non-penalty set-piece goals.

Return of the Press

With each game against bigger sides, Johnson reverts to his counter-pressing style, clearly aware of the opponents’ class on the ball. This suits our side, with Jordan Jones and Aiden McGeady generally able to get on the ball in far more dangerous areas. These pair may be mavericks, but neither are scared of having to carry out their defensive duties. Part of why Callum McFadzean had comfortably his best game in a Sunderland shirt was the protection he was offered by Geads. Not to take away anything from McFadzean mind, he was great on the night - but McGeady time and time again offered excellent defensive cover.

Jordan Jones on the other side, however, was absolutely outstanding. He got the all-important brilliantly finished goal and assist for Wyke, but also worked all night. He hasn’t had a bad game since he arrived and just exudes confidence and swagger. Players like that really tend to thrive up here & Jones is the ideal complement to Geads on the opposite wing.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a winger finish a match with 30+ passes completed and a passing accuracy of 90%. It is truly incredible. Beyond this, he had a 33% goal conversion, 100% shot accuracy, more dribbles attempted than the entire Pompey attack, 29 attacking actions completed, 13 defensive actions in the opposition half and covered acres of ground.

It’s refreshing to see such fluid tactics, with each opposition a clear and defined plan and each philosophy easily identifiable and conveyed to the group.

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