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Talking Tactics: Sunderland’s victory over Swindon – total football, or total compensation?

Charlie Wyke once again proved his immense worth to Sunderland this season with a second-half header to seal victory over Swindon. The Lads dominated the game, but couldn’t unlock a staunch defence until that point.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Lee Johnson made two personnel changes from the side that drew with Crewe at the weekend, as Carl Winchester and Jordan Jones replaced the injured Conor McLaughlin and Aiden O’Brien. This meant that Max Power was forced to drop back into a three-man defence with Winchester partnering Josh Scowen in midfield. Lynden Gooch played at right wing-back as Jones stepped in alongside Aiden McGeady to support Charlie Wyke up top.

Swindon were previously three unbeaten before this game, and it is clear how in their approach here. John Sheridan packed his defence with 10 behind the ball at all times, with even Brett Pitman reserved and Jordan Garrick the clear outlet on the right flank. However, in front of the defence, he utilised a box midfield to cut Sunderland’s passing lanes and largely and effectively nullified our ability to progress the ball from the defence.

He’s the first to do so since we changed to the current style and formation, with the first-half against Crewe more so as a result of complacency rather than tactics from the opposition.

However, like the match at the weekend, the Lads again had a rather turgid first half before improving after the break (a renewed Chris Maguire once again impressing through his willingness to dictate proceedings with urgency) but found a way through via the customary route - Big Charles Wyke’s massive heed.

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


Total Football or Total Compensation?

In response to the injury crisis engulfing Sunderland’s defence, Lee Johnson has switched to a 3-4-3 in all but one of the recent performances. This protects our defence, giving away less space in dangerous areas to the opponents and allows us to generally dictate play quite easily. However, it does tend to make us look quite ponderous and leaves Charlie Wyke far too isolated up top.

In his post-match club interview, Johnson mentioned part of the change to 4-2-3-1 and introducing Gooch to the attacking centre midfield role was in order to try and get players closer to Wyke. In the end, it worked – we performed far better in attacking areas in the second half.

We have seen parts of total football as Johnson eluded to, but also far more total compensation. This 3-4-3 morphs into a 4-2-3-1 in-game quite easily, and we play it in a very lopsided way. So much of this is designed to protect Callum McFadzean, who is constantly the weakest of weak links in the side. Luke O’Nien and Scowen both are tasked with covering their own ground as well as patrolling the space around the LWB as much as possible. Just take a look at the average positions from the first-half below. If you rotate the formation 30 degrees clockwise, you get similar to what we should have been playing. McFadzean is, unfortunately, out of his depth defensively and his continued struggles are causing all sorts of imbalance further up the pitch.

Credit to Johnson and his coaching staff, though, so far his Plan B and way to deal with the current defensive injury crisis is proving fruitful. We have totally controlled every game since moving to this tactic (aside from the first 30 minutes away to Crewe) and the more you can control a game both territorially and on the ball, the less the opponent can do to threaten a makeshift backline.

However, it must be said that I believe the counter-pressing game suits this side more and we look far more threatening when employing it. Hopefully, we can get some defenders back fit as soon as possible in order to return to that.

Average Positions in the First-Half v Swindon

Press Less

As you’d expect, a shift away from the counter-pressing system results in far less, well, pressing. We allow the opposition defence to hold the ball in what would previously have been the first phase of the press from the forward line. Instead, the first phase is now activated by Wyke where the former second-phase would have been by the midfield. This is with the explicit intent as to not stretch the midfield and leave gaps in behind for the opposition to exploit.

In each of the games since Lincoln in the cup semi-final, we have had a lower PPDA (passes per defensive action) and a far lower average defensive line. Of course, this does shift game-to-game depending upon the opponent. Today we pressed higher than at the weekend but less defensive actions in the final third as Swindon barely had the ball and their penchant was to play it long to feed Jordan Garrick in behind the flailing McFadzean as quickly as possible. Crewe are far more competent on the ball as an entire unit, and we allowed them to play it, favouring to cut passing lanes instead (which didn’t work at all in the torrid first half).

I feel like we have a very industrious side who are technically better suited to the counter-pressing style, but you need a solid defence to build upon and it isn’t at all possible right now. Despite the numerous clean sheets of late, Crewe proved how this inexperienced and unfamiliar backline can be totally exposed and obliterated in the air.


Wyke has the (Max) Power?

Now individual performance metrics and analysis don't really come under the remit of tactics, but I would be remiss to write about the Lads and not mention this. The individual improvement of Big Charles and Max Power under the new boss is, frankly, unbelievable.

They were arguably two of the players who were given the most flack under previous bosses and week-in, week-out they just keep on improving.

Max Power has been doing his best Luke O’Nien impression of late, putting in stellar performances as a right-back, deep-lying playmaker, box-to-box midfielder, and now as a central defender on the right of a three. He was absolutely superb last night and was even one of the biggest attacking threats on the pitch. He completed more defensive actions than anyone else barring O’Nien, the most progressive passes (19) and alone had a higher xT (expected threat) than Swindon’s entire team excluding star-man Scott Twine.

Wyke also put in a complete performance. He grabbed his goal, held the ball up well, battled staunchly and worked like a mad man off the ball. For too long, he has done this but couldn’t find the net, yet of late he’s been scoring non-stop but not quite dominating the opposition like he did last night.

He completed 10 aerial and ground duels, five defensive actions, had three shots on goal and covered the most ground out of anyone barring the two central midfielders.

The lads have now won eight, drawn three and lost just one of the last 12 games - hopefully, we can keep the run going into the business end of the season.

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