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Talking Tactics: How Sunderland’s fluid formation led to a comfortable afternoon on Wearside

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Against one of the more tactically interesting sides in the bottom half, Sunderland’s own tactical nuances led to all three points for Lee Johnson’s men.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

The Teams

Sunderland made two changes in personnel from the team which won against Swindon Town in midweek as Lynden Gooch and Josh Scowen made way for Oliver Younger and Aiden O’Brien.

Despite these changes, Sunderland continued with the lopsided 4-2-3-1/3-4-2-1 hybrid which they have used in the last couple of games. Max Power moved back into midfield as Younger came into the right side of defence, whilst O’Brien’s inclusion meant Jordan Jones took up the Lynden Gooch role wide on the right with former Millwall attack O’Brien starting in behind Charlie Wyke.

The visitors line up in a 4-3-3 formation which, like Sunderland’s, was slightly lopsided due to a more attacking left-back and a more defensive right back. Bazunu started in goal, with Osho and McShane starting at the heart of the defence. Ryan McLaughlin, brother of Conor, started at right-back, with the more attacking Keohane on the left side of defence. The forward runs of Keohane were covered by the left-sided midfield Morley, who was joined in the centre of midfield by O’Connell and Shaughnessy. Grant and Baah both started in support of lone striker Humphrys.

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

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Fluid Formations

The inclusion of Oliver Younger in itself was a slight surprise after Lee Johnson has preferred to play midfielders such as Max Power out of position instead of putting the former Burnley man in for his league debut. However, what was particularly surprising is that Younger operated at right back, with Luke O’Nien continuing out of position at centre-half alongside Dion Sanderson.

Johnson’s decision to play a centre-half at right back meant that Sunderland essentially played three different formations depending on the phases of play, and all three shapes were designed to limit the strengths and expose the weaknesses of our opposition.


Without the Ball: 4-2-3-1

The formation which seemed most likely when the teams were announced before kick-off was a 4-2-3-1, and it is no surprise to see that this was the default shape of Lee Johnson’s side on Saturday afternoon.

When Sunderland were out of possession and weren’t looking to press the opposition ball carrier, they dropped into a fairly routine shape with a double pivot screening the back four, and three attacking midfielders blocking passing lanes from Rochdale’s defence into the midfield.

Without the ball-playing defenders at centre-back required to break the lines into midfield, Rochdale countered this by dropping Morely back from the left-side of midfield and looking to play long cross-field balls in behind Callum McFadzean for right-winger Baah to run onto.

This tactic almost paid off a couple of times in the first half, with McFadzean being caught the wrong side of the speedy winger, but after mid-way through the first half Morley’s collecting of the ball short became the trigger for Sunderland to change their shape into their second out-off-possession formation.

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When Pressing: 4-1-4-1

Whilst Rochdale have gained a reputation for a short-passing style which involves slowly building play through the lines, something which sets them apart from the rest of the teams at the bottom of League One, Sunderland mid-block in a 4-2-3-1 meant that they opted to go slightly more direct in their first phase of build-up play.

Central midfielder Morley’s repeated movements to the left-back space meant that the visitors now had six players up against Sunderland’s front four, and the ball-player in deep areas to play forward passes beyond the first line of the home team’s press.

However, Sunderland switched their own shape to cope with this and moved Carl Winchester alongside Aiden O’Brien as Sunderland’s front four became a front five, with Max Power as a lone pivot, who was less prone to being outnumbered since Rochdale had sacrificed a player from this position in the first place.

As you can see from the image below, the change in shape meant Morley had less time on the ball to play the dangerous long balls in behind McFadzean to right-winger Baah, and instead Rochdale resorted to chipped balls over the Sunderland press for either Humphreys or Grant, with Shaughnessy looking to make forward runs from midfield.

This led to a number of aesthetically pleasing moves from Brian Barry-Murphy’s side and good interchanging of positions but, unlike the direct passes to Baah, they were relatively harmless to Sunderland’s defence especially since, with six players involved in the build-up from deep, only four Dale players were goal-side of Sunderland’s initial press.

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In Possession: 3-1-5-1 / 2-1-5-2

It was only when Sunderland were in possession that the decision to play Oliver Younger at full back and O’Nien at centre back became completely clear.

As the first screenshot below shows, in the build-up phase Sunderland utilised a back three, with O’Nien, a player comfortable on either foot, Sanderson and Younger remaining deep whilst Callum McFadzean pushed forward down the left and Jordan Jones remained wide on the right.

It was the high and wide position of Jones on the right that led to Sunderland’s second goal, as the loanee got half a yard of space before whipping a cross around his full back and onto the head of Charlie Wyke. This is a piece of play allowed only by the wide positioning of Jones, which itself was enabled by the use of a narrow full back behind him.

However, despite the scoreline, this tactic wasn’t wholly successful during the build up in the first half. With Rochdale using only one striker, and Max Power playing very deep just in front of Sunderland’s back three, it was often difficult for Sunderland to play out from the back successfully and possession was recycled too often in unthreatening positions around the halfway line as O’Nien played the ball into Power who was closed down and played it back to Sanderson who repeated the trend.

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This explains why, despite having a fairly solid game, Younger was brought off early in the second half as Power moved to right back, Scowen took up his position in front of the defence and Maguire was a more attacking player in the role previously played by Winchester. This prompted a switch to a back four during the build up phase, and Sunderland sacrificed one player in the defensive third for an extra attacker as they looked to build up in a 2-3-1-3-1 formation.

This included Scowen at the base of midfield - ahead of Sanderson and O’Nien - but instead of overlapping, the full backs McFadzean and Power took up positions in line with Scowen just goalside of Rochdale’s wingers.

This meant Sunderland were able to play four players across the midfield up against the four players of Rochdale - since one of their midfield three stepped up to close down Scowen - and Chris Maguire could be given the freedom to come deep as O’Brien filled in for him in the hole.

As a result, there were fewer examples of stagnant possession from Lee Johnson’s side in the second half and this meant Sunderland continued to offer an attacking threat, even at two goals ahead.

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