Lee Johnson made five changes from the side that resolutely (barely) defeated Bolton at the SoL on Saturday: Bailey Wright and Niall Huggins replaced the injured pair of Callum Doyle and Dennis Cirkin, while further up the pitch Corry Evans, Aiden O’Brien and Nathan Broadhead replaced Dan Neil, Alex Pritchard and Elliot Embleton respectively. This meant a return to a 4-2-2-2 formation, with Broadhead partnering Ross Stewart up top.
This caused some consternation among Sunlun fans on social media pre-game, and thus also has the question marks of whether these “fringe players” or “replacements” should now start the next game after the performance.
However, Johnson himself addressed this excellently in his post-game interview.
He claimed that he does not see his squad as a “starting XI” and “backup” but merely a squad. Each opponent and each formation, style, tactic and plan will have players that are more suited and can expose the opponent’s weaknesses or nullify their strengths more effectively. Throughout the transfer window, Johnson did not want to sign “backup”, but “create a squad of two competitive players in each position”.
Cheltenham provided the perfect opportunity for Johnson to do this. Embo and Neil are still relatively young and we do not want to burn them out too quickly over the course of a long season. Cheltenham also employs a very direct style of football in which their whole gameplan is built around working the ball out wide and into the channels as quickly as possible, aiming to expose their opponents under a cacophony of set pieces: be them deep free-kicks, whipped-in corners or the longest of long throws.
Although the changes of Doyle and Cirkin were enforced, playing Cheltenham on a Tuesday night between two big games allowed Johnson to pack the side with power and (or) pace up top while bringing in Evans to create a more stable pivot in midfield.
Direct Style and Broadhead’s Impact
Another change that came hand-in-hand with all the personnel shifts was the move to a more direct style of play ourselves. Cheltenham have one of the highest defensive lines on average this season in League One – and Johnson’s changes were designed to expose that in the entirety.
Nathan Broadhead has seen limited minutes in the league this season and was finally granted his first league start in the game. We were told when he signed that he is largely a penalty-pox poacher with bags of pace, and he proved that with aplomb last night, constantly breaking beyond the away side’s criminally high defensive line and starting the moves for almost every “big” chance and subsequent goal.
He pulled off a secondary assist on Stewart’s second with a beautiful pass, had his shot blocked for Dajaku’s goal, his good play and breaking out wide released Stewart to win the corner that led to Bailey Wright’s goal and for Stewart’s first he pulled off a sublime dummy that sent Sean Long back to the South West nine hours early.
Michael Duff may have been a defender in his playing days, but he left his backline out to dry on Tuesday. Their side was already depleted with 5-6 players out through injury and despite the fact we broke the offside trap five times in the first 20 minutes alone, he refused to change it. Even when 3-0 down at half time he moved to a back four but still instructed them to defend suicidally high and refused to withdraw into a low-block. It was one of the most inept performances I’ve ever seen live from both a group of players and a manager combined.
Broadhead was, ironically, anything but a penalty-box poacher, with his finishing perhaps the weakest part of his performance. And this is being highly critical. Johnson’s tactics brought the best out of all the lads coming in, who all performed well, but this is exactly why Broadhead was signed in the first place.
We recorded our highest xG and lowest xGA, and just on the night, Broadhead had 44 touches and 23% of them were in the box. As far as I am aware this is the single highest concentration so far in a league game this season. We were partly allowed to do so by their high-line but also signifies a shift in approach. Across the entire league, we have the highest accumulated xG this season at 13.6, but just 16 “direct attacks”, and just under a third of these came in this game alone.
The 23-year-old was in fine form and the intelligence and timing of his runs are auspicious signs for the future more than anything else. Hopefully, he can provide that pace and guile up top that we tried (and failed) to find in Jerome Sinclair, Kaziah Sterling, Antoine Semenyo and Danny Graham...
Wright Stepping into Doyle’s Shoes
In the last edition of Talking Tactics, Brandon discussed his fear that Callum Doyle’s absence could be sorely felt in our progression of the ball at pace from deep. Flanagan has been entrusted with a “simplified” role in the offence, with his job largely recycling play to those around him - this has been coupled with more defensive duties as he is the designated and deserved defensive leader.
Doyle is the one who plays the risky pass, who carries the ball out of defence, and every so often, makes mistakes as a result. He lives on that fine edge that Guardiola loves to take and train out of a player: to mould them into as accomplished passers as they are defenders. Thus, he is here to make those mistakes. Much in the same way that Anth Patterson is at Notts County to iron out his own before returning with valuable experience. Thus, we need to live with these odd mistakes, as he is 17 and has prodigious talent. Some of his passing performances this season have been absolutely sublime.
Bailey Wright, however, stepped into this role perfectly. As a side, Cheltenham have quite a high PPDA (passes per defensive action) at 16.5 - only Lincoln’s is higher in the league at 19.1. Thus they like to press high, and Wright used his keen ability to pick a long ball and experience to ping it around like they weren’t even there. Overall, he completed 83 out of his attempted 98 passes (83%), which is also a season-high for a Sunderland CB:
He was particularly effective in finding Evans and O’Nien, thus fulfilling that role of progressing the ball from defence to midfield at pace quite effectively. He had a horror show against Fleetwood, but this is his best performance in Sunderland shirt in a back-four and is promising that he can replicate this form when not flanked by CBs on either side in a three.
Overall, it feels weird to be aggrieved that we did not score more despite winning 5-0. Ross Stewart missed two huge chances himself, while Broadhead and Aiden O’Brien both missed one-on-one opportunities. We genuinely could’ve won by double figures and such was the domination, it wouldn’t have flattered us.
Oh and one last word for Hoffmann again. He’s only played 44% of minutes for Sunderland this season but has already the best goal prevention rate in the entire league: