After resting a couple of Sunderland’s Wembley winners for the two-nil win at Accrington in midweek, Grant Leadbitter and Callum McFadzean both returned to the side in place of Jack Diamond and Jake Vokins.
Coming up against a team who played just one striker, Sunderland moved back to their default 4-2-3-1 formation after using a three-man defence in midweek. Leadbitter’s return meant that Carl Winchester moved into an attacking midfield position with Lynden Gooch moving forward from wing-back onto the right-wing.
The rumours of a defensive injury crisis at Lincoln City turned out to be a little overstated, with Jackson and Montsma both fit to start at the heart of the defence. Former MK Dons played Regan Poole started at right-back, with Brammall on the left. Like his opposite number, Michael Appleton also used a 4-2-3-1 formation meaning former Sunderland man Bridcutt formed a double-pivot with McGrandles. Johnson Edun and Rogers started in a fluid attacking midfield three behind the goalscorer Morton.
Sunderland used a similar game plan to the one which has worked well against Tranmere and Portsmouth in recent weeks, as the high five-man press was rejected in favour of a more controlled gameplan which resulted in a higher share of possession (58% according to SofaScore) without creating a large number of high-quality chances.
When the whistle blew for full time on Saturday I was at first disappointed with both the result and performance as it seemed like the away side had the better chances and we had moved away from the exciting football which had made watching Lee Johnson’s side an absolute joy. However, as the xG graph below shows, when the game is taken as a whole it was a very even one and with Hull and Peterborough both drawing their easy fixtures whilst we drew a difficult one a point was both a fair and good result for Sunderland to take into a much needed week-long break.
Check the Gallery at the bottom of the article for full data visualisations, courtesy of @markrstats
Winchester’s Role off the ball
When the team sheets were announced it seemed as though Lee Johnson had reverted to the 4-3-3 shape which was used in the reverse fixture between these two teams where Sunderland ran out comfortable winners.
However, Sunderland instead used their favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with Carl Winchester playing for the first time in the number ten position, a role most commonly occupied by Aiden O’Brien - a very different type of player to the former Forest Green man.
What became clear fairly early in the game was that one of the main reasons for Winchester’s selection - ahead of Maguire or Stewart - was to nullify the ability of Liam Bridcutt to dictate play from deep. The Sunderland number 26 was essentially given a man-marking role on the former Bolton midfielder and his selection for this role reflects the trust which Lee Johnson has in a player with whom he has worked previously
The following set of images show exactly how this worked well in the first half on Saturday:
Below we can see Winchester’s position as he challenges for the ball and eventually gives a foul away. For comparison, Bridcutt is positioned just above and to the left of Charlie Wyke.
Within a few second of Lincoln taking the freekick, Winchester is right on the toes of Bridcutt, which allows Wyke to start the press and force the Lincoln ball-carrier to play sideways rather than vertically.
This is exactly what happens as Edun, who was playing as one of the three attacking midfielders, is forced to drop very deep in order to progress the ball up the pitch with Bridcutt still marked out of the game by Winchester.
With one less player up the pitch, and short passes into midfield cut off, Edun opts to go long but Sanderson and O’Nien squeeze up and the ball travels harmlessly through to Burge.
Winchester’s ability to nullify Lincoln’s ‘quarterback’ was a key reason, along with the high line used to compress space between the lines, why Sunderland just edged the first half and were able to repeatedly build attacks from the back.
Winchester’s role in possession
Aside from the man-marking job that Winchester was asked to do on Liam Bridcutt, his inclusion was also the signal for Sunderland to play a more possession-orientated style of play, and in the first half especially he showed good movement into the channels in order to link play between the two sitting midfielders - Leadbitter and Power - and the wide areas.
In his first few appearances for the club, playing in one of the side positions in a midfield three, Winchester showed good movement into wide areas before keeping his passing simple as Sunderland looked to close out games. Albeit from a starting position further up the pitch, Winchester performed a similar role on Saturday. A good example of this can be seen below:
First of all, Winchester makes a good run into the inside-right channel and is found with a clever chip by Max Power.
He then plays a typically low-risk pass to McLaughlin who has been allowed to advance up the pitch due to the patient build-up play by Power and Winchester. His cross is, unfortunately, just too high for Charlie Wyke but the move is a good example of how Winchester’s use higher up the pitch led to more patience as Sunderland looked to work the ball into crossing positions.
As both the xG graph and the scoreline showed, this plan worked quite well in the first half with Sunderland achieving 62% possession and going in one goal up after Callum McFadzean’s header.
However, in the second half Sunderland, either by force or due to the natural tendency to sit back when leading the game, struggled to control possession and often went long in the general direction of Charlie Wyke which invited more pressure from the away side.
The more direct play in the second half made Lee Johnson’s decision to swap Winchester with Scowen a strange one, even if Scowen is a natural replacement for Winchester’s role of shutting down Bridcutt the former Brighton midfielder was hardly the one running the game in the second 45 whilst if Winchester was missing out aerially his 5ft 8in replacement was unlikely to fare any better.
The second substitution made much more sense and even though Ross Stewart clearly wasn’t trusted by Johnson to carry out the off-the-ball work which he expects from his number ten, otherwise he surely would have started, he gave Sunderland a much-needed target alongside Wyke and the visitors created just one good chance between the Scot’s introduction on 70 minutes and the final whistle.