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Talking Tactics: What does the data tell us about Sunderland’s performance v Bolton?

What does the data tell us about how Sunderland played against Bolton, and how we managed to get the three points and a well-earned clean sheet?

Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Starting XI

Sunderland lined up in a traditional 4-2-3-1, with Lynden Gooch missing out with a foot injury. Alex Pritchard replaced the American, and Tom Flanagan also reclaimed his place at centre half from Bailey Wright after missing the Fleetwood game through suspension.


The xG data was fairly tight and showed how close a game it was, with Sunderland only just narrowly ahead of Bolton.

The Lads created around 1.1 xG in the first half, but only 0.5 in the second.

Bolton, however, created around 0.7 for both halves.

Player Locations and Possession

Sunderland primarily had more success down the left side against Bolton.

We struggled to bring several players into the game, and the visual below shows how Sunderland were stopped from playing in our usual style.

One player ran the show for Sunderland in possession, and it was our rookie defender Callum Doyle. As you can see in the visual, big Doyler is connected to Hoffmann, Flanagan, Neil, Embleton and Cirkin.

The 17-year-old actually made 19.70% of Sunderland’s passes - that’s almost 1 in 5.

Just how crucial to the way that we play is Doyle, though?

After coming off with a back injury, Sunderland are potentially missing their star defender ahead of Cheltenham Town’s visit on Tuesday - and to show how important he is, I made a visual (see below) to show how critical he is to the way that we pass and receive the ball.

Receiving the ball as a defender is crucial, and Callum takes ownership in the defence - I hope his injury isn’t serious. On the assumption Doyle can’t play on Tuesday night, I’d be interested to see if Wright or Alves get the nod alongside Flanagan.

Quality, not the quantity of possession

The biggest change from last season to this season is the playing style that we’ve seen adopted by Lee Johnson. Over the summer, the coaching team have decided that we are capable of allowing teams to have the ball when leading, to see if they can break us down.

I can only imagine we do this as we are confident in our defensive capabilities, but also don’t particularly rate the attacking options that other teams possess.

How often have Sunderland played against a League One team that play eleven men behind a ball? We are doing this to other teams instead when leading later in games.

You can see the possession broken down for each game below by clicking through the teams.

Hoffmann’s first league clean sheet

Sunderland found it difficult to keep a clean sheet, and Bolton - according to the data - created enough to score plenty of goals. The data showed a positive trend defensively for Sunderland, recording a season-high amount of successful interceptions and tackles.

You can argue that it shows Bolton put us under more pressure, but Sunderland’s defence held out. Last season it felt like we made too many basic defensive mistakes leading to goals, and most of these errors appear to have been ironed out on the training ground.

A word on Bolton

I don’t often talk about opposition in my post-game analysis, but I went over their data, and I was impressed with Bolton’s performance on Saturday.

Their locations in possession reflect a structured and organised team.

My opinion of Bolton has gone up after watching the game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were a wildcard for a playoff place come the end of the season.

On another day, they could have scored 3/4 goals. Statistically, they are the 2nd highest team for possession this season in League One, only behind MK Dons, who also love to pass the ball.

As the xG highlighted, Eoin Doyle for Bolton created 0.8 xG, and the shots data also advises Doyle had 8 shots, reflecting a poor performance in front of goal.


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