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Talking Tactics: How Lee Johnson led Sunderland to a “dirty” win over Accrington

In his post-game interviews, Lee Johnson spoke about the need of having to change the game to a more “dirty nature” to get three points, but this victory was also uber-professional & potentially promotion material.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

All of the ingredients were there for us to morph into “same old Sunlun”: a Wembley win three days ago; a heavily rotated squad; more injuries, with one to Jordan Jones particularly gutting; an aerially dominant opposition, whose own strengths match Sunderland’s weaknesses; a football pitch looking far short of a professional level, and more like the dead marshes of the Dagorlad Plain; and a referee applying his best Ray Charles impression.

However, we came away from the Wham Stadium — no, I didn’t realise it was called that until Wednesday night either — with all three points. It wasn’t pretty, in doing so, Lee Johnson was forced to abandon many of his close-held philosophies, but we did it in an uber-professional manner & one befitting that of a team chasing promotion.

Johnson got his gameplan, tactics and substitutions spot-on. He made five changes from the side which won at Wembley for the first time in 48 years, as Conor McLaughlin, Dion Sanderson, Jake Vokins, Carl Winchester and Jack Diamond replaced Tom Flanagan, Callum McFadzean, Grant Leadbitter, Josh Scowen and Chris Maguire.

Sofascore’s embedded lineups look great, and they’re nicely interactive to boot. But again, they have gotten our formation wrong. With the raft of changes, Johnson also lined the lads up in a familiar 3-4-3 formation, as Lynden Gooch dropped back to RWB and Max Power moved back into central midfield. Jack Diamond was deployed in a narrower role than usual, with him and Aiden McGeady playing as inside forwards on either side of Charles up top.

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


Squad Depth

One thing that resonated with me from the coverage of the win at Wembley at the weekend was Michael Appleton’s reaction to hearing our injury news. Upon being told that we had 10-11 first-team players out through injury or ineligibility, he was astonished that Johnson could name such a strong side anyway.

Even though bodies are returning thick & fast, Wednesday night we were still without the aforementioned Jones, Bailey Wright, Aiden O’Brien, Denver Hume, Jordan Willis, Flanagan and Arbenit Xhemajli. Thus, Johnson has used large swathes of his squad in order to get through a daunting set of fixtures as the matches on either side of the Bristol Rovers game signals the first game-free midweeks we’ve had since the first week of 2021. This has been a spell including 23 games since the turn of the year, all in just 10 weeks.

He has shown key game and squad management to utilise a depth of players and systems to protect those coming into the squad. Today, for example, he has learned from previous outings that defensively Jake Vokins needs more protection and this current cobbled-together defence, in general, suffers against sides who play more direct with big men up top. I lamented the decision to not stick with a back-three against Crewe as Mika Mandron ran riot in the first half. Johnson has learned from his mistake and lined up his side perfectly to both complement those players in the starting lineup while also nullifying the opposition’s threat.

Once again, defensively we were absolutely rock-solid. Accrington only broke once, as some good defensive work by Jake Vokins to stick with his runner and close down the angle made the finish a hard job for an otherwise impressive (and annoying) Paul Smyth. But aside from this, Accrington didn’t cut us open once - completing 0 through balls, runs in behind and not having a single shot on target. The entirety of their xG above came from that one Smyth chance and corners, as you can see below:

Breaking down Accrington’s xT (expected threat) in general, every single chance generated below, aside from the Smyth shot, did actually originate from a corner:


“Dirty” Tactics

As alluded to earlier, Lee Johnson called this a dirty win. However, the context in which he used the term was interesting. He didn’t say the play was dirty in terms of fouling the opposition a lot—the usual definition in the footballing lexicon—but dirty in terms of philosophy. Because the pitch was in such a state in the middle third both horizontally and vertically, we were forced to play it longer and more direct than in recent weeks.

However, with a cacophony of issues holding us back, this wasn’t about performing well but just getting out of Accrington with the three points. While I prefer us to play football in “the right way”, this does just add another bow to Sunderland’s string. Be it through total territorial control, possession-football, counter-pressing, or the direct route - we have shown real flexibility in our gameplan and tactical approach.

We played a slightly deeper line than usual, clearly wary of their pace on the counter through Smyth and Dion Charles - but also to drag them up the pitch. Playing direct requires a deeper defensive line than usual in an attempt to stretch the opposition and open up areas out wide in behind to exploit. For the first time in an age, thanks to this—and the host’s impressive pressing—we had a defensive line just as deep as our opponents:

Carl Winchester exuded class on the night, dictating a scrappy game in which the midfield was largely skipped and playing numerous excellent progressive, vertical passes to his teammates. Max Power was too sloppy with the ball in the first half, but in the second he really had the bit between his teeth and drove us on superbly. However, the double sixes’ job really was largely to provide a base to work from. We skipped the central areas in the second-half in particular after Johnson made his tactical tweak:

Power’s role in the second half is interesting. Whether or not it was his natural drive as the skipper to push us on or a tactical decision, but he stuck as close to Gooch and Wyke - the trio have a good understanding and are friends off the pitch too. While Winchester was dropped deep to screen the defence and build play from deep. While on the ball in the first, we were far more akin in shape to what we have played recently. In the first too, we had some real nice build-up play executed at a high tempo, but some poor individual errors in the final third, stout defending, and getting to grips with the pitch tearing really stunted our progress. You can see below just how balanced our play was on the ball in the first 45:


Perfect Replacements

In Rugby, substitutes are known as replacements. However, England boss Eddie Jones refuses to use this term, preferring to call them his finishers. They see out the game for him and are just as important as those who start.

On Wednesday night, Johnson really gave off this impression. Not only did he find game time for many who have missed out of late (in particular Vokins who had a very good game on his birthday) but also utilised all five subs through the course of the second half. Most of these were to see the game out, with Maguire and McFadzean coming on with only minutes to go. Leadbitter and Scowen were introduced to kill the game off, as the latter in particular played a vital pressing role late on.

Accrington Stanley v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

However, the introduction of Scottish man-mountain Ross Stewart at half-time changed the game. Johnson’s bravery to go 3-4-1-2 when we needed to was excellent, identifying key weaknesses and addressing them early. Jack Diamond pressed well and was an able runner, but nothing seemed to quite come off for him. He, like Gooch, excels in wide areas and when a game is stretched - he was deployed too narrow and Accrington were too deep for him to cause too many problems. Wyke too, was busy battling three massive central defenders and couldn’t quite get free to make our possession and pressure count. Johnson, as mentioned, identified the need for the tactical switch, but also to give Wyke support up top while allowing Aiden McGeady to have a free role to create in behind them.

McGeady was excellent on the ball again, but didn’t really see a lot of it and was evidently frustrated. Johnson compensated for him being marked by three whenever he touched it and the loss of Jones by relying on Gooch and Power’s also excellent crossing from deep. The pair both picked up an assist and really excelled in the second half. I think it’s about time to admit to ourselves that Lynden Gooch’s best position is hugging the right-wing, be it as a RWB or out-and-out winger.

For me, he was the best player on the park - closely followed by a cadre of others including Sanderson, Winchester & Vokins. However, Stewart’s sub was the catalyst for all this. He was aerially dominant, moved the ball well, has surprisingly excellent close-control and pace to boot. This is why so many were so excited and why he had one of the highest xG ratings in Europe prior to signing. Johnson has also managed him well, I think his comments were excellent psychological games, early in the day joking that he had “nought appearances, nought games, bought goals but one trophy” only to then immediately after the game state: “I was delighted for him to come on and score his goal - that’s one game, one goal, one medal”. Stewart clearly was intent on proving his worth, and I don’t think it’ll be a flash in the pan by any means.

To finish, our resident stat-man Steve Tiltman unearthed a promising and auspicious stat. No side with a goal quotient of >2.00 has failed to get promoted from League One. Sunderland, as of tonight, are on 53/26 ≈ 2.04. Hull are on 2.10 and the next nearest side behind us is Peterborough on 1.74. The league as a whole averages 1.10 and the other current playoff teams average 1.24.

Johnson may have called this a “dirty” win, but it was anything but. It was professional, clinical and efficient. We’re going to need a few more like it until the end of the season too.

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