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Talking Tactics: Are Tranmere Rovers a dream or a nightmare opponent for Sunderland?

Tranmere Rovers’ season has parallels with Sunderland’s, and both teams come into Sunday’s game in excellent form. But what do we actually know about Tranmere this season? Brandon Feeley gives a breakdown of what the numbers tell us about Tranmere Rovers.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-off Final Photo by Leila Coker/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As Sunderland prepare for their second EFL Trophy final in three seasons, we look at Tranmere Rovers, the opponent this Sunday.

They are a familiar side to Sunderland as they played in League One for the shortened 19/20 season. Unfortunately for Tranmere, they lost home and away to Sunderland and were victim to the PPG (Points Per Game) fiasco which the EFL used to determine the final League One standings last summer.

Here’s how they’ve been faring recently – anything that is marked the last five games comes from the following matches:

  • Carlisle 2 – 3 Tranmere
  • Leyton Orient 1 – 3 Tranmere
  • Tranmere 1 – 0 Newport
  • Tranmere 0 – 1 Crawley
  • Southend 0 – 2 Tranmere


Like Sunderland, Tranmere does not have a set formation. They will play four defenders but have varied from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 and most recently 4-2-3-1 v Southend.

Tranmere’s passing network v Southend on Tuesday night shows where the average location in which a pass is made.

Tranmere do like to have their fullbacks (numbers 2 and 18) higher up the pitch in possession. My guess for Sunday is Tranmere will line up 4-2-3-1 again and defend into a 4-5-1 shape.

Last season Tranmere played in League One and this season find themselves towards the top of League Two – they will likely play in a similar fashion to a lot of struggling League One teams but with more confidence.

League 2 table in 2021

Like Sunderland, Tranmere have been in title-winning form since the start of the calendar year.

The Vaughan Factor

Watching Tranmere’s previous five games was interesting as midway through this spell of fixtures James Vaughan had surgery on an injury that rules him out of the final this Sunday. He did play against Carlisle and Leyton Orient.

The presence of Vaughan in Tranmere’s team was obvious when watching the games. After Vaughan got injured and I watched the latter three games, and Tranmere had less of a focal point up front.

Considering Vaughan has scored 18 goals and is the second top scorer in the league, this is no surprise. But Vaughan is more than just scoring goals to this team. His build-up play was excellent and contribute towards 50 per cent of the goals for Tranmere at the time of his injury (18 goals, three assists from 42 Tranmere goals),

Tranmere have still won and played well despite the loss of Vaughan, with Liam Feeney who’s played across central midfield and Kaiyne Woolery who plays on the right midfield position, impressing.

From the heat map (the brighter the colour the more activity) you can see that Feeney’s activity is spread across the centre of the midfield. His range of passing, crossing and set-piece deliveries are excellent for this division and he currently has three goals and seven assists in his 24 league starts this season.

Woolery’s heat map again highlights the main position his activity is found in. Woolery is a fast and skilful player who contributed largely to Swindon Town’s promotion from League Two last season – due to the uncertainty with COVID, Swindon opted to release him.

He’s a major threat for Sunderland with McFadzean playing at left-back and it would no surprised to see Tranmere try to take advantage of our weakness down the left.

Tranmere Data Trends

Tranmere shoot from a variety of positions on the pitch – they’ve scored nine goals in the last five matches, and 54% of their shots are on target.

Tranmere have more activity shooting from the left side than the right over the course of the season, which can be seen in the previous visual.

Tranmere have more activity in their own third than the attack third. This will be down to the style of play.

Tranmere do attempt to pass the ball on the edge of their defensive third, which is why they have more activity than the attacking third.

This visual tells us a lot about Tranmere’s style of play. Firstly, the most common passes end up in wide positions. Secondly, if you compare the previous visual from where passes are made to this visual, you will find a 20-25 yard average gap between passes. Tranmere like to play longer passes and hit them out wide.

My Verdict

Tranmere has the look of a team Sunderland has slipped up against since entering League One in 2018. They’ll know they can’t outplay Sunderland, and missing James Vaughan is a huge blow for them, but I expect Tranmere to stay defensively solid and hit long passes as the data shows us.

Tranmere like to use width and Sunderland’s biggest weakness is preventing crosses from wide areas.

I think Tranmere will have to score first to win this game, as their playing style is not suited to attacking from a losing position. Sunderland should win this game on paper but need to take caution as Tranmere are statistically the best team in League Two this year.

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