Lee Johnson named one change from the Accrington draw in his Starting XI, with Grant Leadbitter replacing Carl Winchester. Aside from this, he kept up the usual 4-2-2-2/4-2-3-1 with the incoming Leadbitter partnering Josh Scowen in the middle of the park.
Injuries once again decimated the defence, but it is worth noting upfront that Sunderland has not won a single match in which this midfield pairing have started together under Lee Johnson - Scowen has played in every defeat and we have just two wins out of nine when Leadbitter starts. I’ve decimated this ground already & I feel like a broken record mentioning that we desperately need to cease fielding a two-man midfield with one/both of these in them, so will leave that aside for today - but it is still one of the biggest problems plaguing the side.
Definitive Pressing Shift
In the last two games, there seems to be a definitive and intentional curtailment of the high press so far seen under Lee Johnson. In the post-Wigan Talking Tactics, I lambasted Scowen and Max Power for their lack of control and composure in midfield, but to be fair to the pair, continually lining up with a midfield two and a very high press does leave the double pivot somewhat vulnerable to the counter and transitional attacks from the opposition.
In an attempt to quell our leaking of goals from both the counter and individual mistakes, we lined up - in the first half in particular - quite passive, 10 yards deeper than usual and intent upon limiting the visitors’ space in attack. It worked for the most part, with Sullay Kaikai’s individual piece of brilliance all that separated the two sides. All four defenders performed well, limiting Blackpool to just 12 touches inside the penalty area and one shot on target from inside the area too.
Defensively, there was a vast improvement. Although I do prefer a high-press, if you can not field energetic and intelligent midfielders, then we will struggle. Leadbitter and Scowen do not have the legs and ability respectively to be able to do this. Blackpool did not have a single “clear-cut” chance, and their xG was limited to just 0.42. Our PPDA was the lowest in any game under Lee Johnson to boot.
I don’t think the midfield was the only matter which forced the tactical shift. Bailey Wright has struggled since his return to the side from injury. Wright is at his best as a penalty box defender. This isn’t aimed at denigrating him, as when on form his long pressing and footballing intelligence is a level above most defenders in this league. However, I do believe he struggles in a mobile role in a high-pressing side, especially when not match fit. Many have supposed that he struggles to play in a back four, but I don’t personally subscribe to that theory. It is more so that in a formation that demands a high press & a double pivot, central defenders are not just expected to progress vertically, but also out wide to try and fill the half-spaces that are vulnerable to any opposition counter.
This game was his strongest since his return, both on and off the ball. He completed 87% of his attempted 77 passes on the day, 70% of aerial duels, was not driblled past once, and totally marked Jerry Yates out of the game. If we are to win the playoffs the priority must be upon re-discovering our miserly defensive work, and this was a good step towards doing so.
Johnson’s tactical tweaks led to a turgid first-half, but it was actually sensible & if not for one stunning goal, Chris Maxwell having the game of his life and Aiden McGeady having one to forget, he’d have come away with a result. This one in particular wasn’t on the boss.
Ross Stewart Criticism
Over the course of this winless run, criticism has ramped up and snowballed as you’d expect. Most of it warranted, but this social media blackout comes at a good time for us all to sit back and remember that footballers are humans too, and suffer from unjust prejudice and hate in their critique.
After the game, many have lambasted Ross Stewart, but I personally do not believe he deserves it. Granted he has not exactly set the league alight - but he’s only started one game and has played 9 times in general for the lads.
In the second half, Aiden O’Brien struggled to be a support option for Charlie Wyke, as the pair were swamped by Blackpool’s three central defenders. Stewart came on with just under half an hour remaining in the game and completed just 50% of his 8 passes. Seemingly low figures, but every single one of these came inside the opposition penalty area & O’Brien himself had only completed 6/12 in the 61 minutes he played.
Stewart did not have a high quantity of time on the ball, but the quality was certainly there. He won 80% of his attacking aerial duels, and created two big chances for his teammates. Despite playing 60 minutes less than most other players on the pitch, he had the highest xA of all at 0.5. From the moment he came on, we absolutely dominated as it forced Blackpool deep.
I don’t think he should start, as he is an excellent impact sub for late in games, but the criticism that he had no influence on the game and was merely a “carthorse” seems unfair and statistically incorrect.
We were somewhat muted from an attacking perspective in the first half due to the tactical change, but went for the jugular in the second. Arguably our best all-round performances this season have been Doncaster and Lincoln away. On Tuesday we created just as many big chances, but couldn't put them away.
Overall, we were unlucky against Blackpool, but also did lack a real creative and individual spark. Jordan Jones has been off form of late, Aiden McGeady was terrible on the night, Charlie Wyke battled well but his one big chance was saved and Chris Maguire has been ostracised from the starting eleven. Perhaps bringing in the latter as a creative fulcrum could be the spark we need.