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Talking Tactics: What does the data tell us about Sunderland’s performance on Saturday?

Sunderland dropped just their fifth point of the season at Fleetwood, despite taking a two-goal lead, but why? We take a look at what the data tells us about the way the game played out on Saturday...

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Team Selection

Lee Johnson has been keen to keep a pretty familiar starting eleven in the league this season, and on Saturday he made just one enforced change from the win over Accrington.

Bailey Wright replacing the suspended Tom Flanagan at the back made sense considering Doyle, Cirkin and Winchester could do with an experienced leader alongside them - but it turned out to be a pivotal change in all the wrong ways.

Aside from that, the usual 4-2-3-1 - Embo as the 10, Geads and Gooch on either side, Stewart up top and the Neil-O’Nien pivot - continued as normal.


No Hassle, Hoff

Before moving onto the more generic, tactical side. I just want to reserve some praise for young Ron-Thorben Hoffmann in goal. While he made no major errors on his debut last week, he was nervy. He seemed to struggle with every cross and clearly wasn’t used to that whatsoever. There were glimpses of real quality and promise with some of his saves and distribution, but I can imagine most fans left feeling nervous.

Fast-forward a week, however, and the total opposite is true.

He was an absolute rock and kept us in the game with a string of impressive saves. He actually made two double-save scenarios throughout the game, and one of which could even be considered a triple-save, but as the whistle had blown before Fleetwood’s striker headed towards goal, it statistically doesn’t count.

Simon Grayson is no tactical genius, and all that allowed Fleetwood back into the game was our own mistakes and some tenacity and class up top from the impressive Callum Morton. However, Fleetwood’s tactical approach towards Hoffmann baffled me.

Any scout with a pair of eyes and a functioning brain would have reported back to Grayson that even at home Hoffmann was nervy under a high-ball and press. Fleetwood did not hassle or harry him in possession whatsoever (their PPDA in the first 45 was abysmal), and nor did they pummel crosses high and deep into the box as you’d expect at this level. It seemed like a potential missed opportunity for the hosts and Hoffmann not just grew into the game but excelled.

At least it is good to see Grayson is still completely and utterly clueless.

Fleetwood Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Tactical Shift

From the 67th-72nd minute, Lee Johnson replaced Elliot Embleton and Dan Neil with Nathan Broadhead and Corry Evans. This was clearly aimed to see the game out by shoring up midfield while also looking to break using Broadhead’s pace and keenness to run directly off the shoulder of defenders.

However, in doing so, Ross Stewart was dropped slightly deeper in order to cover the space between midfield and attack. This is often the role Embo carries out in the side, but he did not have a particularly effective game on Saturday.

Overall, Embleton had the:

  • Lowest Touches - 36 (Gooch is 2nd lowest with 42)
  • 2nd Lowest Passes Completed - 23 (Stewart Last with 15)
  • Joint-LowestPasses Attempted - 30 (with Stewart)
  • Lowest Passes Received - 17

It was no surprise to see him withdrawn. In Embleton’s defence, his league stats compared to every other side all season are outstanding:

  • 5th in L1 for Assists per 90 (0.48)
  • 5th in L1 for Goal/Assist without Penalties (0.80)

When he was involved, he generally did well. It just wasn’t enough. We need our midfield to find him at every opportunity as both wingers are too inconsistent and he’s the vital link to Stewart up top.

Regarding the sub itself, by dropping Stewart deeper, we lost a vital outlet in attack. He may have not imposed himself much on the game but as per, got his customary goal and kept their defenders occupied.

Once he was withdrawn (on the pitch), this allowed Clarke, Hill and Andrew to carry the ball out of defence more and thus pressurise Sunderland further (note no.3’s position below in particular, as well as the general better breadth and depth of average positoning):

This is probably my only real criticism of Johnson this season - he has been too conservative in regard to substitutions and thus is unable to really change the flow of the game.


Defensive Errors

While there is no need to build up ridiculous clamour regarding the result, the defending is a worry - and shall only snowball if it continues. As aforementioned, it is clear why Wright was selected ahead of Frederik Alves to partner Doyle in defence: his leadership skills and experience is vital to holding together a defence. Well, theoretically.

In actuality, he looked rusty (as he has for some time now, that just isn’t exposed in back-three as much), was absolutely slaughtered in the air by both Camps and Morton, and made two decisive errors for the goals.

For the first, he stepped up in a bizarre situation that did not allow for such, trying to play the offside on his own 6-yard box (while also allowing Morton to get a run across himself), and then needlessly pulled at a player’s shirt in the box in the 95th minute when the referee had already given a penalty for a similar foul earlier in the game.

The penalty decision was soft. It happens all over the pitch and 90% of the time is not given. However, as stated, the ref was looking for those tugs all game long, Wright should have been focussing on the ball more, not the man, and to do so in that part of the game is criminal. Johnson rightfully disagreed post-game, but you get the impression he only did so assiduously in order to deflect the blame from his side to the ref - and that’s just solid man-management. Yet, he is right - it was soft.

I am not sure whether this is tactical in order to draw sides out and try to coax them away from sitting with two banks of four against us at all times or not, but we need to stop playing offsides and sitting so deep in the second half. It invites trouble and this game was the first time we have been properly found out by it.

There is no need to panic, mind. Some of the toxic reaction after the match on Saturday evening was so annoying to see. We’ve won 5/7 games - 6 of which against top-half sides at the time, 4 against top 6 and 2 against top 2. This is our best league start in 100 years.

Furthermore, having such a young but technically proficient team means we can only get better. There is far more to be ironed out of some of these young lads’ games and they’ll only get better as the season progresses.

Oh, and Dennis Cirkin - what a ‘baller.

His defensive positioning and vertical passes in behind are a joy.

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