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Talking Tactics: Breaking down how Johnson’s Sunderland broke down Barton’s resilient Bristol side

At the seventh time of asking, Sunderland finally picked up three points against a team managed by Joey Barton - here’s how Lee Johnson found the route to victory.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Lee Johnson was boosted by the return from injury of Irish striker Aiden O’Brien, and the forward’s goal settled the game at the Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The gaffer made two personnel changes to the side that drew against Lincoln a week earlier – one enforced – as Conor McLaughlin and Grant Leadbitter were replaced in the line-up by Josh Scowen and the aforementioned O’Brien. These changes forced Max Power to drop into defence, lining up at right-back, while O’Brien started again as a withdrawn second striker behind top scorer Charlie Wyke.

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

Quality shines through

Joey Barton may have had mixed success during his short time as Bristol Rovers boss, but there are a few clear identifiers with all of his sides. Physicality, pressing and dirty play off the ball. All three were evident in abundance on Saturday and his tactics were to disrupt our play as often as possible and counter with his “sloped” formation.

Johnson used this term immediately after the game, as Brandon Hanlan and Jonah Ayunga were Bristol’s outlet on the long ball, but both constantly shifted to the wing – with a central midfielder vacating the gap in the middle – as their 4-4-2 was just as much a 4-3-3 throughout. The tactics were clearly to attempt to pull Power and Luke O’Nien out of position, using their lack of experience at the back to find gaps. It did work on the odd occasion, but for the most part we were quite resolute defensively and good value for the clean sheet. It says a lot that Barton’s typically incendiary presser after the game was focused upon a ‘stonewall’ penalty that was anything but, and once again attempted to belittle Sunderland as a city, club and institution.

To combat this, we once again did the “dirty” work well and matched them at their own game. Johnson himself admitted this was not ideal, with perhaps a lack of quality in the final third and Bristol’s own ability to break our play well and counter our press through Hanlan’s hold up play owing to our change in tact. However, with quality on the pitch such as Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke, you always have a chance. O’Brien may have got that all-important goal, but the former two had the best xG (expected goals), xT (expected threat) and xA (expected assists) on the day, by quite some distance. It says a lot about their intentions from the start that Wyke’s individual xG matched the entire Rovers side, while McGeady’s xA was higher than their whole team combined.

In truth, poor finishing and ball retention let us down, and we’ll need to work on that all week ahead of two massive games over Easter. McGeady created more openings for his teammates than anyone else on the pitch and picked up another assist (see below for his overall strong effectiveness), but he did also miss a huge chance at 0-0 to open the scoring, uncharacteristically blazing over from inside the penalty area. A few other big chances went begging too.

Lack of identity?

For the vast majority of Lee Johnson’s time in charge, it has been quite easily to pin down what the identity and philosophy behind a certain game plan or performance is. This changes game-to-game, depending upon the availability of certain players or the opponent’s own style and form; be it pressing very high, or going more possession-orientated in order to limit space and chances for the opposition against a cobbled-together defence.

Although we have seven points from nine in our last three games, it has been hard to spot any identifiable game plan. Perhaps this is a combination of a few key injuries coupled with a few others dropping slightly out of form, or perhaps the aim has been just to get the victory no-matter-what and close the gap to the top two?

On Saturday, we didn’t exactly do either of the above approaches, but a combination of the two – we also played far more direct than recent. As you can see below, the average defensive line is about 5-10m deeper than those few games where we excelled at pressing so much earlier in 2021:

However, we did still press quite effectively, in terms of sheer numbers, with a decent PPDA60 (passes allowed per defensive action):

These are very solid numbers, but we really were out-pressed by Rovers’ frontline overall. The side did press, but as opposed to a more constant and streamlined one across the 90 it was very much following the ebb and flow of the game. We improved in the second half until sitting back late on. Much of this is probably due to the worry on the counter and the ability of Ayunga and Hanlan to carry the ball over large distances at a high pace:

On and off the ball, they covered a lot of ground and really limited our progression from the centre of defence. Luke O’Nien has been excellent covering at central defence, but he can struggle if he is pulled out of position, with his lack of experience at CB really showing. Crewe, Lincoln and Rovers all did this quite effectively, although Luke did win the vast majority of his individual battles again on the day. It’d be nice to get Bailey Wright back as he just shores up the defence so much, while Luke has been great the opposition clearly target him and Max Power, and it forces us back. It is exactly why Johnson switched to his back-three and possession-oriented style while our defence was decimated by injury.

We didn’t really suffer from a lack of identity, but their whole game plan was to merely disrupt our flow. Rovers did this effectively, particularly Luke Leahy, but not only did we cut them open on numerous occasions but also returned north with the win.

Jones’ explosiveness

One thing we have missed is the directness and quality of Jordan Jones. He’d become integral to the side before his unfortunate injury and we need him back pretty quick. The replacements for Jones out wide right are not as consistent, dynamic and merely do not possess the quality on the ball. In these three games, the emphasis has been placed firmly upon McGeady and Wyke, and we became somewhat predictable. O’Brien’s return helped on Saturday, he is very effective at both supporting Wyke from getting isolated up top while also covering a lot of ground defensively to negate the man advantage Rovers had in the middle of the park.

O’Brien deserved his goal for a real battling performance. However, our issues on Saturday did seem to tend towards individual errors, rather than a worrying trend. WhoScored’s excellent match summary above really places a microscope upon the issues we faced. It was very much the scrappy nature of the game that took over, and against better quality opposition we should step up. In truth, it looks like we’ve taken a bit of a breather ahead of a vitally important week, with many of the Lads just off the boil on the day. We covered less ground but got through unscathed.

This game, however, was always about just getting the three points. Whenever Barton is involved he does an incredible (and annoying) job of making the occasion all about him and taking the pressure and limelight entirely off his players. He is egotistical to the extreme so for him it is a win-win situation, but we got out of there with the points. A year ago, or two, this would’ve been a nailed-on 1-1 draw.

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