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Talking Tactics: How a half-time change led to McGeady producing a moment of Cup Final magic

It wasn't a game for the neutrals, but Aiden McGeady's moment of magic and another clean sheet show Lee Johnson's tactical set up was the right one.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

The match

With a number of players ruled out of the game due to a mixture of ineligibility and injury, Sunderland made four changes to the side that played against Pompey during midweek. Tom Flanagan and Grant Leadbitter replaced the cup-tied duo of Dion Sanderson and Carl Winchester, whilst Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire replaced the injured Aiden O’Brien and Jordan Jones. Despite the changes, Sunderland continued in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which was much less fluid than in previous matches - but more on that later.

Tranmere also operated in a 4-2-3-1 formation, despite not fielding a recognised striker following James Vaughan’s absence. Davies started in goal, with a back four of Khan, Ray, Clarke and MacDonald shielded by the experienced double pivot of Jay Spearing and Liam Feeney. Wollery, Morris and Lloyd started in behind Lewis who, despite earning the false nine tag from the commentators, operated very much as a regulation centre forward.

Despite this being a meeting between two sides a division apart, the game was a very even contest that lacked the adrenaline of a cup final whilst containing the same nerves on both sides that are customary of big games. In such a tight game, and with both sides matching each other up in terms of formation, it was no surprise that the most talented player on the pitch, Aiden McGeady, came up with a moment of magic to set up Lynden Gooch’s winning goal.

From Sunderland’s perspective, the game probably contained more negatives than positively tactically, especially in terms of chance creation, but what matters in cup games is the result and Lee Johnson’s side should be given credit for another clean sheet, which allowed the brief moment of quality to decide the outcome of the match.

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Sunderland’s strong defence

As I have just mentioned, Sunderland deserve real credit for their defending yesterday afternoon. Regardless of the opposition, Sunderland played the majority of the game without a natural centre-half in the team and the closest the opposition came to scoring was through a Grant Leadbitter tackle which cannot be described as anything more than awkward for Lee Burge.

Sunderland’s defence was the main reason for our first Wembley win since 1973, a game we also won one-nil, and this seems to have been a plan by Lee Johnson as he sought to ensure his third-choice back four was protected.

In previous games, Sunderland have pressed high up the pitch, as their 4-2-3-1 formation shifted into a 4-1-4-1 shape and with the defensive line near the halfway line in order to get more players in opposition territory to win the ball back in dangerous positions.

However, this high-pressing strategy relies on Sunderland being happy for the opposition to hit long balls over the press in the knowledge that their centrebacks could deal with the aerial threat posed by their opponent's strikers. With Dion Sanderson cup-tied and then McLaughlin replacing Flanagan in the first half, Sunderland lacked confidence in the aerial ability of their defenders and their level of pressing was reduced as a result.

Instead, Sunderland sat almost in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with a double pivot of Leadbitter and Scowen protecting the defence and Gooch and McGeady also dropping back to track the runs of the Tranmere fullbacks.

Tranmere put in a good account of themselves, but the inability of Keith Hill’s side to create any clear cut chances against such a makeshift defence only strengthens the argument that Lee Johnson got his system spot on for a game that was all about the result.

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Papa John’s Trophy - Final 2021 - Wembley Stadium
Max Power was again part of a makeshift back four that again kept a clean sheet
Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

A moment of McGeady magic

Like all good sides that employ a gameplan based around protecting their defence, Sunderland also offered a genuine threat when they had the ball.

Defending in a 4-4-1-1 formation, the wide position of Lynden Gooch left room for Chris Maguire to pick up the ball in dangerous positions in the inside right channel especially during Sunderland’s attacking transitions. Tranmere’s number ten Morris also picked the ball up in similar positions during the first 45 minutes, but the first half was a story of both players failing to create any clear chances for the attacking players around them.

The second half was different, as Sunderland began to play through McGeady more often after the Republic of Ireland international adjusted his position from staying high and wide in the first half to dropping very deep, almost alongside Sunderland’s double pivot, and very central as he looked to make his mark on the game.

The assist for Lynden Gooch’s winning goal was just that mark. McGeady picked the ball up inside the centre circle, turned and played a wonderful defence-splitting pass to the American winger who had made an intelligent out-to-in run in behind the Tranmere defence. Sunderland almost scored from the exact same move a couple of games ago but Gooch was denied by the goalkeeper. He made no mistake this time.

The facthat that we've seen this move before shows it's something that Sunderland have worked on in training, and Lee Johnson's team selection in recent games seems to have decided that a front three of Wyke leading the line, McGeady cutting inside to create and a right winger - either Gooch or Jones - offering a threat in behind. Sometimes we play with a number ten and sometimes a midfield three, but the cup final goal is an attacking move which is an ever-present threat in Sunderland's attacking arsenal.

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Papa John’s Trophy Final
After missing a similar chance a couple of games ago, Lynden Gooch made no mistake on Sunday
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images