The lads once again lined up in the tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation, but with two enforced changes after the Burton defeat in midweek. Anthony Patterson made his league debut after regular first choice Lee Burge was injured in the warm-up, while lack of fitness ruled out Dennis Cirkin. As a result, Dan Neil moved to left-back, Elliot Embleton into a deeper role in the pivot and Alex Pritchard made his first start playing as a 10.
‘A game of two halves’
The above cliche is often used, but it’s also a fair way of explaining Saturday’s game. Wimbledon themselves may seem like an ‘easy’ opponent on first viewing - but before the match, they had lost only one in 11 games in League One.
It is easy to see why they have gone on such a run, with a solid spine led by Anthony Hartigan’s classy ability in midfield and Ben Heneghan’s supreme aerial ability.
In the first half, we played at far too low a tempo as the away side did a very effective job of disrupting the flow of the game and dragging us into needless physical battles far too often. We did still cut them apart on numerous occasions but a lack of killer instinct and edge hampered us throughout.
As you can see below in Brandon’s graphic summarising the number of defensive actions, and PPDA (opposition passes completed per defensive action) we were far more passive in the first half, but increasing the tempo and flying out of the blocks for the first 20 minutes of the second half really changed the game in our favour:
Furthermore, we changed our approach.
For much of the first 45, Alex Pritchard’s influence was muted as the aforementioned Hartigan and Alex Woodyard effectively limited his space and nullified his influence. Our only real opportunities came from wide areas, with Lynden Gooch’s shot (well-saved by the impressive Nik Tzanev) was our best chance, and we often reverted to a series of unsuccessful crosses.
This changed in the second, as we attempted just two crosses from open play, and completed 43% of all in general, as opposed to just 9% in the first:
While he may have been playing at right-back, Carl Winchester was - even before his goal - easily our best player on the day.
Lee Johnson managed Winchester at Oldham and had actually deployed him at right-back before. In actuality, Big Lee has now deployed Winch on either flank of defence, on either wing, all three midfield positions (DM, CM, AM) and as a central striker throughout his managerial career.
For some reason, after we signed Winchester, many had assumed that we were “signing a L2 nobody who had never played at this level”, which was a falsehood. He has played just as much in L1 as he had the tier below, even under Johnson himself.
First of all, here’s a quick summary of Winchester’s work on Saturday:
And a quick heat map:
Winchester has played in this role before but is far from a specialist.
In recent years, we have seen quite a number of central midfielders deployed at right-back: Gooch, Luke O’Nien, Max Power and Jack Diamond just to name a few.
However, Winchester has now performed better than all except perhaps O’Nien in his first season who spent the vast majority of his time playing in the position. He doesn’t just aimlessly cross into the box, nor stay too deep in fear of being caught out of position.
In fact, he has statistically been our most effective defender when regarding per-90 metrics this season:
Embo’s best role
In my view, you build a team around your most effective and important attacking players.
Right now, they are Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart.
Embo did a fine job of dictating matters in midfield, in particular from the 45th minute until his late withdrawal, but in deploying him in a deeper role we missed out on his innate top-class ability to find space and create among packed defences.
We created far more high xG chances in the second 45, playing at a higher tempo.
Part of this is because Embleton pushed higher and Alex Pritchard found far more space and time on the ball vacating the central areas and into the left-hand channel.
The pair may not be the same type of player, but both want to fill the same areas of the pitch and want to do the same job.
This is not meant as a slight against Pritchard, as I thought he was effective at breaking between the lines, but Embleton is that unique type of player who is genuinely the most two-footed player I’ve seen in a very long time for Sunderland and as mentioned, is highly effective in tighter areas against packed defences.
Considering most teams will defend deep and play more passively than usual at the SoL this season, that will be a vital asset.
In a midfield combination of three from Embo, Evans, Neil, O’Nien, Pritchard or Winchester we have an engine room full of technical ability and a cadre of players who are not just comfortable, but highly effective on the ball in possession-oriented systems.
It is a far cry from the plodders of recent years and has been the biggest problem position since we dropped into League One. Keeping them fit could provide problematic, but they all truly are glass cannons.
See below for a full gallery of data visualisations, courtesy of Roker Report’s very own Brandon Feeley.