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Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Tactics: Who should Lee Johnson choose in Sunderland’s starting XI v Lincoln?

We’ve analysed the data, and this is what it’s showing...

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Sunderland and Lincoln have already played each other three times this season, so should have a good idea about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and how the game may be approached.

So, what have we learnt from those previous encounters that might influence how we approach the first leg at Sincil Bank?

Formation and starting XI

In both league meetings against Lincoln, Sunderland played a 4-3-3 formation.

While it was very effective in the away fixture, which we won 4-0, I thought three central midfielders at home was a big negative.

Our most used formation this season is 4-2-2-2, so my assumption is that we will use this in the away leg.

My starting XI away to Lincoln

Our defence has been leaky of late, which has coincided with a drop in form. Due to defensive injuries and the quality of players available, I’d keep an unchanged back four.

However, Tom Flanagan – as you will find out further down the article – was extremely busy in the game in December, so I wouldn’t discount his involvement if fit.

I suspect Johnson will set up the midfield for a typical away performance. Based on what we’ve seen from Lee Johnson away from home, Leadbitter playing in a deep midfield position is a safe bet. Max Power will push further up and carry the ball forward – overall this season his passing stats have been superb, and he regularly has the most passes in the team.

McGeady and Jones could well play as our more advanced midfielders. McGeady has a preference to cut inside and play deeper on the left while Jordan Jones likes to push higher up from his position to a third forward.

My choice up-front is Wyke and Stewart – obviously, pending Stewart’s recovery from injury.

While Stewart and Wyke have only started one game together, I picked Stewart based on the data.

Lincoln win 18.9 (20th in L1) aerial duels per game and Sunderland win 23.9 (9th in L1) per game. We should look to maximise this by partnering Stewart with Wyke.

Subs to consider

Chris Maguire

This type of football match has Chris Maguire magic written all over it. Our system doesn’t really fit Maguire too well, but I would anticipate him being used if we need to change the game. Maguire has been frozen out of the first-team picture under Lee Johnson but he is a big-game player and could replace a player like Jordan Jones during the match.

Jack Diamond

I really rate Diamond, and if he can improve his end ball then I think he could be a great player. As we have McGeady and Jones available, Diamond is most likely to start on the bench. If Ross Stewart doesn’t work out up top, we could consider him to play off Wyke. Pacey and skilful – Diamond could be the perfect impact sub. Lincoln struggle against this type of player so I would recommend he is used.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Diamond caused Lincoln all sorts of problems at Sincil Bank in December
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Josh Scowen

Unfortunately, due to the circumstances of the match, Scowen makes the bench. Grant Leadbitter, I believe, is better served for this type of match and Scowen will likely come in for the return leg at the Stadium of Light. Based on the numbers, Sunderland on average have 55.5% possession a game, and in both league meetings, we had 59% – suggesting we’re going to see quite a lot of possession. Leadbitter in my opinion uses the football better than Scowen, so I’d bench the former QPR man.

Previously at Lincoln City

Casting ourselves back to mid-December when we thumped Lincoln 4-0 in our best win of the season.

Passing Maps

We lined up 4-3-3 and it worked extremely well. The counterattacking pace of Diamond caused issues in the first half, during which we went 3-0 up after 41 minutes.

What’s particularly interesting is how high Max Power played. This influenced my decision to start him in central midfield, but I’m hoping he will push up like the data suggests he did in December.

Count the Passes!

Below you can view the passes made in December’s win at Lincoln. The most common passes are Flanagan to Wyke, and Leadbitter to Flanagan (16). See you if can find them below!


We had a really clinical match in the December fixture. If there is one thing the data backs up categorically is how wasteful Sunderland are when attacking. We averaged nine shots per goal during the season, but at Lincoln, this reduced to 3.5. Clearly, we made the most of our chances and this was probably one of the better days we had in front of the goal all season in terms of how ruthless we were.

View the shots!

Below is an interactive shots chart. Each part of the pie chart has a minute that is coloured to the type of shot. If you hover over/click on the pie, you view which player also had the shot.

What to expect from Lincoln?

We’ve already played them three times and I like the positivity and counterattacking abilities of Michael Appleton’s team. However, they struggle when holding onto leads.

Blackpool scored two late goals and Peterborough three late goals versus Lincoln in recent weeks.

In the Papa Johns Trophy match, Lincoln scored on the counter-attack and then sat back.

Once we equalised, we dominated.

The key take out is that while we may not have been in the best form towards the end of the season, neither were Lincoln. They have their weaknesses too – and much will depend on how clinical we are in front of goal.

Hopefully, we’ll see a performance more akin to December’s win, than the two games that have so far followed.


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