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Talking Tactics: How Sunderland’s change in formation resulted in a much-improved performance

Lee Johnson’s change in formation yielded better results from Sunderland at Hull, despite having to settle for a point. We look closer at the data to see what it tells us...

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

The Teams

Aiden McGeady missed out with a foot injury, meaning Lee Johnson changed the makeup of his side by bringing Carl Winchester into the starting eleven to play in a midfield three, whilst Lynden Gooch replaced Aiden O'Brien and started on the right in a 4-3-3 formation.

Hull City managed Grant McCann made just one change to the side which won 2-1 at home to Fleetwood on Saturday, with former Sunderland captain George Honeyman replacing Dan Crowley in the number ten position as the home side continued in their 4-2-3-1 formation.

After Sunderland’s struggles with a double-pivot in midfield on either side of their good run of form, Lee Johnson’s decision to use Grant Leadbitter as the lone pivot with Winchester and Scowen beside him was a welcome change.

This change in shape worked wonders for the opening 15 minutes of the game, with Jordan Jones thriving on the left-hand side with a shot hitting the bar before he got his goal a couple of minutes later. However, Hull were allowed back into the game and Magennis’ header showed that it will take more than a simple formation change for Sunderland to regain their position as the best defensive side in the division.

Sunderland did manage to grab their second goal from a Grant Leadbitter penalty midway through the first half, and after this, they ended the first half the better of the two sides.

Whatever Grant McCann said to his Hull City side at the break clearly worked, and the home side were able to limit Sunderland’s time on the ball which allowed Mallik Wilks to expose Callum McFadzean and his cross led to Magennis’, and Hull’s, second goal of the game.

Sunderland did have a good spell near the end, with Aiden O’Brien making a couple of good late runs into the box to get on the end of crosses but his first effort was saved whilst his second hit the bar.


Formation change gives Sunderland more control and more attacking options, but only in the first half

Although slightly later than some fans had hoped, possibly due to the injury to Dion Sanderson keeping Luke O’Nien in the centre of defence, Lee Johnson finally changed formation to the 4-3-3 shape which proved successful the first time Sunderland abandoned the double pivot - back when Johnson was trying to implement a 4-2-2-2 formation which resembled the formation he used at Bristol City.

I discussed at length the advantages of a 4-3-3 formation for Sunderland’s high-press in the Talking Tactics which followed the win against Doncaster and although the players involved were different - Luke O’Nien and Josh Scowen flanked Max Power in that game - the 4-1-4-1 off-the-ball shape worked almost exactly as it did on that day. Brandon also wrote an article back in February comparing Sunderland’s pressing with a two and three-man midfield. For this reason, I’ll concentrate on the positive changes Sunderland’s switch in formation had on their play in possession of the football for today’s edition.

The main difference between the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3 formation is that the shape used at Hull City last night omits a number ten, meaning that other players need to make it their job to get into creative areas around the edge of the box.

Sunderland solved this problem in a number of different ways. Firstly, when Sunderland had possession in their own third and were pressured by Hull, Charlie Wyke dropped deep and acted as a temporary false nine, holding up the ball and bringing the midfielders into play.

Secondly, as the average positions from half time (below) shows, Sunderland, who pushed both wingers high and wide, encouraged both of the wide centre midfielders to get into the box and into these number ten positions. This meant that Sunderland essentially used a 2-3-5 formation when in possession with the two full-backs taking up conservative positions roughly in line with defensive midfielder Grant Leadbitter.


This is a shape that Sunderland have threatened to create using a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Aiden McGeady operating alongside Aiden O’Brien as a number ten, but have lacked the dynamic left-back needed to operate as a winger in the attacking phase whilst starting from full-back in the defensive phase.

The ability of Sunderland to attack with five players meant that they looked more threatening than in at least two of their recent run of three defeats, whilst the inclusion of Leadbitter and Winchester in midfield gave Sunderland two players who were able to dictate the pace of the game. This meant that Sunderland enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and went into half time one-goal ahead.

Lack of possession left the wide areas exposed in the second half

After a strong first half, Sunderland’s 4-3-3 formation began to look much more vulnerable at the start of the second period when Hull City managed to gain the upper hand in the battle for possession.

With Hull finding themselves with more of the ball, the weaknesses of Sunderland’s formation change started to show themselves. Whilst the 4-2-3-1 formation tends to change into a 4-4-1-1 formation during extended periods without the ball, the 4-3-3 Sunderland used for the majority of last night’s game included two wingers, Jones especially, positioned high up the pitch in order to avoid Charlie Wyke becoming isolated.

With Jones not offering much help to his full-back, McFadzean became isolated one-on-one with Mallik Wilks, Hull’s key player, and it was no surprise to see that it was the home team’s right-winger who set up his side’s equalising goal.

Although Lee Johnson can be criticised for not removing McFadzean earlier in the game, he does deserve credit for switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation as Sunderland looked to get back into the game. This reduced the threat of Wilks as Sunderland began to take more possession of the ball, and it was through O’Brien - introduced in order to change the shape of the side - that Sunderland very nearly won all three points in the final minutes of the game.


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