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Talking Tactics: Breaking down Sunderland’s gameplan after beating MK Dons away

Sunderland’s non-penalty xG was below that of their hosts MK Dons from open play - but did they deserve to travel back up north with all three points?

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

The Teams

Sunderland made just one change to the side that beat Wigan on the opening day as Dennis Cirkin came into the side at left back, in place of Dan Neil who moved into midfield to replace Luke O’Nien who missed out due to illness.

Despite changing a managerial change from last season, the new MK Dons boss Liam Manning continued with the 3-4-3 system used by now Swansea boss Russell Martin. Scott Twine lined up behind Mo Eisa and Troy Parrott to make up the front three, whilst Ethan Robson started in midfield against his former club.


As the xG graph above shows, Saturday’s game was much more even than the win against Wigan. If we remove the 0.8 of Lynden Gooch’s missed penalty, Sunderland come out slightly behind their hosts on xG but the timeline helps to tell us the story of the match, and it's true that for the majority of the game Sunderland deserved to be in the lead.

Sunderland light in midfield without O’Nien

The surprise omission when the teamsheets were announced was Luke O’Nien, who missed the game due to illness meaning Dan Neil partnered Corry Evans in the middle of the park.

O’Nien is probably unique in Sunderland’s current crop of midfielders in that his main asset is his energy and tackling, whereas Neil, Evans and Winchester all stand out for being tidy in possession of the football.

Just as the partnership of O’Nien and Evans seemed to work well on paper and on the pitch, with O’Nien providing the legs as Evans provided the passing, putting Dan Neil alongside the Sunderland captain meant we lacked the same bite provided by our number 13.

Against Wigan, Evans’ average position was actually slightly further forward than that of O’Nien, with the former Blackburn man generally sticking to the middle of the pitch a bit more than his partner who worked especially hard to protect the defence. However, with Dan Neil’s skillset based around neat through-balls such as the one who assisted Elliot Embleton’s goal just after half time, Evans was asked to play a purely sitting role with his partner pushing forward to link midfield and attack.

Neil performed this role admirably, with his total defensive contributions (tackles, interceptions, clearances, blocks and fouls) coming to 10 per 90 minutes as a midfielder which compares favourably with O’Nien’s 12 against Wigan.

However, Corry Evans struggled to make a similar defensive performance as he did on the opening weekend as he made just 3 defensive contributions per 90 during his time on the pitch at Stadium MK, compared wth the 9 contributions he made against Wigan. With Evans playing a deeper, and therefore more passive, holding midfield role this weekend I wouldn’t go as far as to blame Sunderland’s captain for this drop-off, but rather than lack of O’Nien hassling players in the middle of the pitch seems to have affected the style of the midfield which on the opening day had a good mixture of brains and brawn, but on Saturday shaded ever-so-slightly too far towards brains for Sunderland to successfully implement the high-pressing system we have came to expect from Lee Johnson’s side.

Quality not Quantity of Chances

As I mentioned at the beginning, the non-penalty xG actually puts MK Dons ahead of Lee Johnson’s side for Saturday’s game. However, there’s a couple of reasons why I think that this stat is slightly misleading.

Firstly, Sunderland did win a penalty and it may have been slightly soft, but had Ross Stewart taken a shot from the position he found himself it would have had been a decent chance, and would have been reflected as such in the xG scores.

Secondly, and more importantly, Sunderland produced a non-penalty xG of 1.25 from just 6 shots - giving them an average xG per shot of 0.21. MK Dons non-penalty xG of 1.37 came from 17 shots meaning their average shot was worth just 0.08 xG. The home side’s ‘average shot’ had less than half a chance of going in when compared with Sunderland’s.

The shots graphs in the gallery below also tell a similar story. Sunderland had just one shot from outside the box - Lynden Gooch’s effort from Embleton’s short corner in the first half - and three shots (excluding the penalty which is the blue dot in the middle of the goal) from positions both inside the box and relatively central. Looking at the graphic below, on another day this season Sunderland would score three.

The MK Dons’ shot map shows why xG, when taken in context, can be more useful than these graphics and why the two metrics are best taken together to paint a fuller picture. The home side managed 9 shots from inside the box, with 7 of these coming from central positions. The group of dots in the central part of the Sunderland box makes it appear as though the home side bombarded Lee Burge’s goal with high-quality chances.

However, what the recent use of xG throughout football has shown is that shots from the edge of the box, even centrally, actually have a rather slim chance of finding the back of the net - this is part of the reason why Pep Guardiola has become somewhat of a master of getting his team to score goals from inside the six-yard box during his time as manager of Manchester City.

If we take Scott Twine’s goal - the green dot for MK Dons - as providing the penalty spot, just two of the hosts’ shots came from close range and centrally, and when you consider that Lee Burge passed the ball to the opposition for their goal it's fair to say that Sunderland can’t be begrudged the three points, even if it wasn’t as comprehensive a performance as last weekend.


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