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Talking Tactics: How Lee Johnson masterminded Sunderland’s feisty comeback against Oxford Utd

Sunderland were forced to come from behind after a poor opening half-an-hour - here’s how Lee Johnson and his side turned things around to make Good Friday a great one.

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

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

The Match

After a second consecutive match-free midweek, Lee Johnson made two changes to the side which won one-nil against Joey Barton’s Bristol Rovers last Saturday.

Conor McLaughlin returned to right-back after his stint on international duty with Northern Ireland, meaning Max Power moved into midfield and Carl Winchester dropped to the bench. Further forward, Aidan O’Brien also dropped to the bench after scoring the winner last weekend with Lynden Gooch taking up his position behind Charlie Wyke and Jordan Jones returning from injury to start on the right-wing as Sunderland continued in their default 4-2-3-1 formation.

The visitors made just one change from the team that beat Lincoln City two-one last Saturday with left-back Josh Ruffles, who was injured in that game, replaced by Anthony Forde.

The game was pretty even for the opening 20 minutes, with both sides enjoying extended spells of possession without creating any clear-cut chances. James Henry’s opener came from the first time that the game had been stretched as Sunderland’s counter-attack broke down and the visitors made them pay and Henry finished well from the edge of the box with what was his side’s first shot of the game.

Sunderland at first struggled to create any clearcut chances in reply to the away side’s early lead, but slowly they took control of the game and Lynden Gooch’s goal just before the break was deserved and meant the second half was set up well for Lee Johnson’s side to complete the comeback.

Comeback is exactly what they did, and despite a more even opening to the second half the game turned on the hour mark as Mark Sykes was sent off for his second yellow card. A couple of substitutions later and Aiden McGeady grabbed a crucial goal to put Sunderland ahead before Max Power put the icing on the cake.

Sunderland gradually grew into the First Half

In the opening stages, Sunderland struggled to progress the ball upfield when in possession, and despite having almost 60% possession in the first 30 minutes the majority of the game was played in the two-thirds closest to Lee Burge’s goal.

The first half perhaps showed the importance of Carl Winchester to make Sunderland’s 4-2-3-1 formation work. With both Scowen and Power looking to drop deep and receive the ball from the two centre backs, O’Nien and Sanderson who possess enough quality to play more difficult passes than was being asked of them, and the two full-backs being just that rather than attacking wing-backs the Sunderland team could be split into two separate parts with a defensive six and an attacking four.

The Average Positions after 30 minutes, notice the deep positions of Scowen (14) and Power (6) compared with their positions at the end of the game (below)

Despite lacking in midfield, Sunderland did manage to get a number of crosses into the opposition box, with Jordan Jones especially finding the ball out wide on the right. But with the slow pace of the build-up play allowing Oxford’s back four to set themselves for the cross, and the lack of a secondary aerial target in the form of O’Brien or Stewart, Charlie Wyke was rather easy to defend against.

This pattern gradually changed as the first half went on, with Sunderland pushing further up the pitch meaning Scowen and Power were able to use their ball-winning abilities to keep Sunderland on the attack, whilst their difficulties in playing progressive passes from their own half were minimised as O’Nien and Sanderson found themselves on the ball around the halfway line.

This improvement was demonstrated by the equaliser, scored by Lynden Gooch on the stroke of half time. Luke O’Nien showed why he, and Sanderson, should be allowed to take care of the build-up phases of Sunderland’s play as his cross-field pass found Jones one-on-one with his full-back.

The Rangers loanee showed great skill to go past Hanson before setting up Gooch for a tap-in from under the crossbar. In two passes Sunderland had gone from the half-way line to the back of the net, Oxford weren’t able to set themselves defensively for Jones’ cross and it was the exact opposite of what we saw in the opening half-an-hour.

Sunderland’s Average Positions after 90 minutes - note Power (6) and Scowen (14) are much closer to the front four

Second Half formation change secured the three points

When the second half kicked off the game opened up significantly as Oxford managed to create their first chances since taking the lead and put Sunderland under significant pressure when they attacked at speed.

However, the complexion of the match changed significantly when Sykes was send off f meaning Sunderland had the task of breaking down the away side’s ten men in order to secure a much-needed three points.

Lee Johnson almost immediately brought on Ross Stewart for Conor McLaughlin as he looked to make this advantage count, and Sunderland naturally controlled the game from this point on. However, aside from Jordan Jones hitting the bar from the edge of the box and Stewart having a decent header saved we continued to struggle in creating a match-winning opportunity.

This was until Johnson made a second change by bringing off the impressive Jones for Chris Maguire and switching to an inventive formation to directly counter the opposition’s inferiority of numbers. On paper, Lynden Gooch was positioned at right back in a 4-4-2, but this worked in practice more like a 2-4-2-2, essentially a 3-4-2-1 but with the centre back up front due to us having the extra man.

Sunderland’s formation following the introduction of Stewart and Maguire

With Maguire playing as a number ten, his natural position unlike Jones who prefers to stay wide, Gooch pushed right up the pitch and it was from this position where he dribbled inside to set up McGeady, who found himself in a central position in part due to the formation change, who slotted home from the edge of the box.

Taking off Sunderland’s best played on the day in Jordan Jones seemed like a strange decision when his side was looking for a goal, but Lee Johnson showed that the set-up of the team is more important than cramming all of the best individuals into it, especially against ten men.

The two substitutes Stewart and Maguire neither scored nor assisted, but without their introduction, it’s hard to see McGeady or Gooch finding themselves in the right position to combine for the all-important second goal.

Gallery of visualisations courtesy of @markrstats


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