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Talking Tactics: Looking closely at what went wrong for Sunderland against Wigan

There is no point sugar-coating this result and performance - for 35 minutes all seemed decent, but then disaster struck. Here’s what the data shows us about what went wrong for Sunderland at Wigan.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Lee Johnson again made a raft of changes from the loss against Charlton at the weekend, this time probably justified. Aiden McGeady moved inside as a 10 while Jack Diamond started on the left & Jordan Jones right-wing. Farther down the pitch, Bailey Wright & Denver Hume both made their full return from respective injuries while Luke O’Nien shifted out to right back and Max Power into midfield. Lynden Gooch, Carl Winchester, Callum McFadzean and Aiden O’Brien all dropped onto the bench.

To be honest, only two decisions particularly irked me. First, to continually line up with a double-pivot in midfield, and second, Carl Winchester being entirely removed from the squad (along with Chris Maguire - again), as he was only reinstated to the 18 after an injury to Conor McLaughlin in the build-up. Aside from that, I liked the brave decision to go with that front four and try Geads in the 10 role. In general, they played well for the first 40 minutes too, with Diamond brilliant on the left.


Double Pivot the Crux of the Problem

That second-half is one of the most gutless, inept performances I’ve seen in a long time - and certainly the worst 45 minutes under Lee Johnson. We allowed Wigan back into the game through horrific set-piece defending, followed that up with another mystifying quadruple substitution then proceeded to lump a ball long in a cobbled together 3-4-1-2, playing right into the hosts’ hands.

However, long before this, the midfield two was a major issue. Max Power and Josh Scowen were too far apart, too high up and totally oblivious to Wigan’s threat in the transition. Time after time, their counter attacks came through exposing the monumentally large gaps between the defence and midfield pairing. Will Keane played pretty much as a 10, and consistently found himself free in this area. Neither Scowen nor Power were awake to the danger and played almost entirely out of position for the entire time they were on the pitch - far too far apart and too high up. I’m not sure if this was tactical or just by negligence, but almost every issue on the pitch stemmed from this. We were unable to progress the ball in the second-half due to our ineffective counter-press, and both corners which led to goals emanated from Wigan playing Keane, Lang or Dodoo in behind the two and working from there:

Scowen and Power’s position upon Wigan’s transition, and the gap vacated which Keane & Lang took advantage of. This was the attack that led to the corner given for their goal.

Put simply, the pair were absolutely terrible. On the ball they constantly gave it away and neither supported the attack nor protected the defence effectively enough. Max Power should, frankly, be ashamed of the performance he put in at one of the most important junctures of the season. He was substituted for good reason, and in truth it should have been far earlier. However, Lee Johnson hung them out to dry, and has repeatedly done so for weeks now. We’ve banged this drum for some time, but it is abundantly clear how much we struggle with a double-pivot, and needed to deploy a midfield three both on Tuesday night, at the weekend, for probably most of the games before then, and going forwards from herein.

Our double-pivot just doesn’t make any sense. The entire reason for them is to pivot. When playing deeper, this is fundamentally enabled through one of the double-pivot dropping into differing spaces between the back four to create what is almost a temporary back three, allowing the full-backs to push much higher. They then interchange, according to the need at the time and the position of the ball.

Generally, the initial benefits are clear from this pivot: the defence resides within different vertical/horizontal lanes to help circulate possession & break past the opposition’s strikers with full-backs in advanced positions to support play when they do. In our case, because the pairing were far too high and did not pivot, they occupied less lanes. This provides less width/depth, thus condenses the space for vertical penetration between opposing players. Ordinarily the central pairing would be in a position to shift the ball between themselves with a natural increase in passing angles into midfield. Because we did not, the central defenders could not break from Dodoo or Keane pressing and were often forced long. Wright & Sanderson combined attempted 21 long balls - they completed 5 of them.

This has been an overarching issue for some time now. We do not have the players with either the stamina to do so, or the wherewithal to know how to do it effectively enough. Thus, playing a vertically aligned midfield three would benefit the whole team. While Charlie Wyke may be slightly more isolated, it will allow us to control games & progress up the pitch at a far higher tempo - which is crucial in this league.


Set-Piece Defending

This was previously one of the strengths of the team. Still, we have conceded less goals from set pieces than anyone else in the division:

However, the defending for set pieces in general was disgusting. There is no other way to call it, or dress it down. For the first, Max Power totally lost his marker and wasn’t even five yards close. Dodoo had all the time in the world to pick a spot & play it in - then Luke O’Nien was far too interested in getting too tight & wrestling with his man rather than going for the ball. He’s done that far too often of late and it’s directly led to goals (Charlton, Lincoln, Crewe et al):

Take note of the distance Power is to his marker here (it happens again) and Luke being so ridiculously tight on his man. He’s risking a penalty or a goal by continually doing so.

Then, for their very next corner less than 10 minutes later. We did exactly the same thing. In the box, Lang and Keane had both shook free of their respective markers in the second phase (Hume and O’Nien) but it was again the first instance which led to the goal. Guess who? Once again Max Power was in absolute no-mans land for exactly the same type of corner, yet this time even more egregiously:

His positioning & lack of awareness is horrific. To be honest, although his is clearly awful, it feels unfair to single one man out. Curtis Tilt has a totally free header, then is allowed to follow it up with his touch out wide again totally free, before Dodoo is then allowed to cross it from wide totally free all while Tilt, Lang and three others inside our penalty area are also, again, totally unmarked.

However, questions must be asked of the entire tactical set-up for defending set pieces, clearly Leam Richardson identified our clearing of the second-phase an issue, as they were instructed to keep it away from the mixer on corners before then delivering it once we tried to clear. In fact, all but three of their corner kicks were exactly the same. We were given an early warning when they went deep with the corner, played the ball back across and Lee Burge made a decent save from a fee header. It was almost carbon-copy of the goals later conceded. Rank defending.

Regardless, a team who defends set-pieces that way doesn’t deserve to win any game, never mind promotion. On Tuesday alone, we conceded 50% of previously conceded set-piece goals from the entire season prior.


No Plan B / Mental Fragility

Well, to be fair, we do have a Plan B. That plan B is aimlessly pinging it long for the top two. It has worked this season: Accrington away is a point in case. However, that wasn’t just aimlessly punting the ball up-field like Tuesday, but working the ball into attacking areas where we can do damage then taking the direct option to overwhelm. That option was also only taken due to the horrific nature of the pitch. I think we were quite effective in attack for the first 30-40 minutes - pushing them right back with some excellent wing-play at pace. McGeady dominated and Wyke got his goal. Wigan didn’t pull off some tactical masterclass to turn the tide, but we collapsed.

Usually a lack of a Plan B and mental fragility aren’t really linked, but they were on Tuesday. They have been for the last 3-4 games. I don’t like the term bottlers, and it is usually only a knee-jerk reaction trotted out at the business end of the season, but it is becoming increasingly harder and harder to not use it. We absolutely fell apart on the back of conceding two horrendous set-piece goals and resorted to panicking. Johnson panicked in his raft of horrific substitutions which killed the game off. Why did he:

  1. Take off both wingers only to go two big men up top?
  2. Not change up the entire midfield when they were clearly struggling?
  3. Change to a back three far too late and cause us to look so disjointed?
  4. Introduce Grant Leadbitter to only bypass him entirely for 40 minutes?
  5. Make four substitutions all at once, killing the flow of our game?

They are all naturally subjective statements. However, it is objectively clear that being forced to make so many quadruple substitutions in a row clearly denotes that the Starting XI was wrong in the first place in each of these games. Before and after this sub, the players panicked. The set piece defending for the goal was, as mentioned, derisory, and after we went 2-1 down all semblance of a game plan totally evaporated.

The biggest concern from Tuesday isn’t even that set-piece defending or the individual mistakes on and off the pitch, but the collective mental fragility. Where was the urgency to get back into the game? Why did we, as a team, collapse and let Wigan back into it entirely through our own making?

Peterborough have some tough games, Hull’s slightly less so. But we play them. We can still (just) get into that top two as they will drop points. But do we have the ability to catch up? I don’t think so. Go out there and prove us all wrong.

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