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Talking Tactics: What did we learn about Lee Johnson’s plans from Sunderland’s win v Hearts?

What does what we saw from Sunderland during Saturday’s win over Hearts tell us about Lee Johnson’s plans for the team going forward? We take a deeper look...

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

With Sunderland’s squad still very much a work in progress, the amount of insight into Lee Johnson’s tactics for the first game of the league season is limited.

However, if we combine what we saw on Saturday afternoon with what we know from Lee Johnson’s first eight months in charge then we’ve had a few clues as to how Sunderland could line up when the competitive games get going.

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The Midfield Three

Although the eleven players selected to start Saturday’s game probably hinted at a return of the 4-2-2-2 formation from Lee Johnson’s first few months in charge, the use of Aiden O’Brien as a second striker in the absence of new signing Alex Pritchard probably hints that the prefered shape will be the 4-2-3-1 used in Sunderland’s most recent competitive game.

Johnson mentioned last year about setting up with a midfield which included a number 6 (holding midfielder) number 8 (box-to-box midfielder) and a number ten (attacking midfielder) - and although the three players who started in these roles on Saturday are all likely second choices, they do reflect the way Johnson has mentioned he wishes to line up in the centre of the park.

A sign of Johnson’s commitment to playing a genuine box-to-box midfielder in his side, rather than an extra ball-winner such as Josh Scowen who featured heavily last season, was the inclusion of Elliot Embleton in the midfield double-pivot rather than in one of the attacking midfield positions.

After signing his new contract, Luke O’Nien will surely be the first choice in this number 8 position, meaning Embleton will likely be used as a replacement for Aiden McGeady or Alex Pritchard, but the decision to use Dan Neil - and then Corry Evans - as a number 6 gives an indication that Carl Winchester could be used in a more dynamic midfield role than previously expected, assuming our transfer business in midfield is finished.

Heart of Midlothian v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

A familiar attacking set-up with a different spearhead

Just as Sunderland’s centre midfielders all played different and complementary roles, the two wide men also operated in contrasting ways. Aiden McGeady was used as the main creative force for the side as his tendency to drift inside and drop deep meant that Aiden O’Brien was also used in a familiar selfless role of covering the spare gaps left by McGeady’s free role - most often the left-hand-side.

The main difference between the work of Sunderland’s attack on Saturday compared with last season was that, although Gooch continued to offer a threat in behind the defence as he did last year, the American winger was not the only man with the ability to stretch the opposition defenders. Ross Stewart, who seems likely to be Charlie Wyke’s replacement, showed exactly where he has the advantage over our former number nine in his work to win the penalty that opened the scoring.

McGeady, dropping into the central role that I’ve just mentioned and with a willing runner in Stewart rather than the static Wyke ahead of him, played a neat through ball which Stewart took around the ‘keeper before being fouled.

Although McGeady frequently found the ball in similar positions last year, this is a goal Sunderland simply would not have scored last season with Charlie Wyke up front and for that reason I can see McGeady having an even more productive season in terms of assists than he did during 2020/21. Stewart offers the same height in the box to aim crosses at, but his pace in behind is a bonus that we did not possess last term.

If McGeady can continue to get the ball in these areas, keeping Will Grigg around could also start to make sense unless we receive a good offer for our most expensive League One signing. Grigg isn’t much of a fox-in-the-box type centre forward, and his limited ability in the air didn’t suit how we built the team around Charlie Wyke’s forehead last season, but being asked to make frequent runs in behind could get something from the four-million-pound man.

Heart of Midlothian v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

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