Sunderland continued in the 4-2-3-1 formation that is clearly our first choice system for this year’s campaign. Despite his hat trick in midweek, Aiden O’Brien remained on the bench as we resumed league action. The only change was the return of Dennis Cirkin at full-back in place of Alex Pritchard, meaning Dan Neil went back into midfield and Elliot Embleton returned to the number ten position.
After finishing last season well with a similar system, Wycombe used a three-man defence as they lined up in a 3-4-3 formation with Daryl Horgan and Anis Mehmeti looking to supply Sam Vokes and Josh Scowen seeking a win against his former club.
When coming up against teams like Wycombe who base a lot of their game on making the middle of the pitch a battleground and base their own game on putting dangerous deliveries into the box from wide areas, the most important thing to do is to avoid being drawn into this unnecessary battles in the centre of the pitch.
Despite Wycombe having their best spells of the game at either end of the first half, Sunderland managed to limit the away side’s threat by avoiding the middle section of the pitch and instead backed their quality on the ball in wide areas to get the better of Gareth Ainsworth’s side.
As shown by both the team heatmaps and the average position maps for the first half, Sunderland almost completely bypassed the middle of the pitch but, crucially, not in anti-football long balls to the striker way but instead, they build from the back through Doyle and Flanagan - both playing on their natural side - playing passes forward into either high-positioned full-backs or straight to the wingers McGeady and Gooch.
This explains the lack of passing lines from the midfield pair Dan Neil and Luke O’Nien for the first half, as their role was mainly a defensive one - five of the eight tackles/interceptions from the above graphic took place in the first 45 - as Sunderland looked to attack down the flanks where there was more space for their forwards.
Especially with Wycombe using a back three, the movement of Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart into these wide areas when Sunderland did have the ball was a key part of creating space in the areas from which both our first-half goals were scored.
On both occasions, Embleton drifted out wide on the right which, with Gooch needing to be tracked by the Wycombe wing back, dragged the away side’s back three across the pitch. For the first goal, the academy graduate crossed into Stewart who got himself a free header in between the Wycombe center-backs and for the second, Embleton took the shot on himself from a slightly narrower position and curled the ball into the top corner with his left foot.
In the second half, with Sunderland two goals to the good, the game plan changed somewhat and Lee Johnson’s team were comfortably the better side. After allowing Wycombe to have the ball in the first half, safe in the knowledge that Wycombe are more used to making the most of a small share of possession rather than building positional attacks during long spells with the ball, Sunderland looked to have as much of the ball as possible in the second 45 knowing that without the ball Wycombe are unable to score and get themselves back into the game.
With this, Luke O’Nien and especially Dan Neil were more involved in possession after halftime. The younger member of this partnership was, as always, composed and comfortable on the ball and completed just under 90% of his short and medium-range passes, and the eye test suggests that most of his longer passes took place in the first 45.
Probably most promising from Dan Neil was his assist for the third goal which took the game out of reach for the away side. After spending much of the game playing a rather reserved role in the side, Neil seized the opportunity to take on a couple of players with the ball at his feet before, as has become customary with our young midfielder, playing a beautifully weighted pass for Ross Stewart to score his second of the afternoon and put the icing on the cake of an assured and efficient display from the men in Red and White.