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Wycombe Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Tactics: How Sunderland broke down Wycombe’s man-marking system

Coel Young analyses Sunderland’s performance against Wycombe, and explains how Lee Johnson’s side managed to break down Gareth Ainsworth’s man marking system.

Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

Lineups and Shape


Wycombe Press

In the first half particularly, Wycombe’s press made it very difficult for us to build from deep and progress the ball centrally.

Hanlon and Vokes positioned themselves to cut the pass into our full-backs, funnelling the ball down the centre of the pitch. Wycombe would then man-mark closely, making it incredibly difficult for us to get separation and put any sort of passing moves together.

We were often forced long into Stewart or the other forwards, however, their centre-backs dealt with this relatively comfortably. Their man-to-man pressing also meant it was difficult to get Embleton and Pritchard into the game for large periods in the first half.


Wycombe’s sustained pressure

Following our opener, Wycombe did an excellent job sustaining pressure in pinning us into our defensive third. They pushed on both wing-backs like they typically do, forcing Gooch and Embleton to defend deep. Wycombe loaded the box with both forwards and the far-side wing-back, and the 8’s McLeary and Mehmeti were positioned on the edge for any second balls.

Here you can see one of Wycombe’s diagonals into the box with both McLeary and Mehmeti moving in anticipation for the knockdown on the edge:

And here is the situation just before the goal, with their box presence helping Wycombe pin us in.

The equalising goal came from one of these periods of pressure, and came during a period where we struggled to find any out-ball.


Moments of success

However, when we were able to play through their initial pressure or win the first ball, we looked very dangerous in these moments and left their backline exposed.

Stewart won some important flicks when pulling into these wider areas at times in the first half, and considering how Wycombe committed their wing-backs to their press, the back three were left isolated.

Similarly, when we were able to sustain some pressure we were able to expose their man-marking in defence, with rotations from our forward line dragging their defenders away from their slots at the back.

Here, Evans moves forward between the lines whilst Pritchard drifts towards the left, leaving Scowen in no mans land on who to pick up.

This pulls Grimmer forward and Embleton is left 1v1 out wide against Stewart.

This could again be seen in the build-up to the first goal, with Embleton dragging Stewart over towards the right, meaning the right wing-back Grimmer had to close the gap, leaving Cirkin in more space to receive and deliver a brilliant ball.


Progressing into the final third second half

Right from the start of the second half we started to exploit gaps in their backline, again with lots of rotation across the forwards which pulled apart the Wycombe defenders and midfield.

Here in the first example, Patterson finds Stewart directly who drags the central defender Forino miles out of his slot defensively, whilst the rest of the back three/five is completely disorganised due to the rotations (look at Embleton’s run attracting the attention of Scowen) and Cirkin pushing high on the far side, stretching their backline further.

Evans makes a good run from midfield off of Mehmeti and has a great chance to score.

In the second example, Patterson again fires a good pass into Embleton, who bounces it into Pritchard in the pocket of space behind Scowen, who is unsure in his positioning.

Embleton then quickly spins off Stewart (who again is miles out of his defensive slot) and is played in with a fantastic pass from Pritchard.

Another avenue which we used well second half was the centre-backs driving in with the ball. This is very effective against man-marking systems as the defensive players are usually occupied by their man, and if they do leave their man this opens up a free player elsewhere.

Both Doyle and Flanagan drove brilliantly into the opposition half at times:

The success we had in the first half (left) compared to the second half (right) can be seen in Embleton and Pritchard’s touch maps, where they started to receive the ball in more central positions.

Elliot Embleton

Alex Pritchard


Second Half issues

One significant issue in the second half was our right-hand side, which Wycombe often looked to target. A big cause of these problems was Gooch’s narrow positioning on the right-hand side.

His positioning meant Winchester had to jump out to press Obita, creating a big gap between himself and Flanagan. If Wycombe got a runner from midfield into this channel then Evans and Neil did a good job in tracking, however as seen on the penalty shout, this left Flanagan isolated against Hanlon who is very dominant physically.

This narrow positioning also allowed Wycombe to utilise their long switches out to the left, with Gooch’s narrow positioning this time giving Obita time and space to deliver into the back post.


Although it was an incredibly frustrating goal to concede at the death, overall we deserved the three points against one of the toughest sides to play in the league (who are definitely unfairly labelled as a typical “hoofball” side).

We constantly found ways to exploit and get at their back three in the second half particularly, and we were a big threat on the counter throughout, despite desperately missing the pace of Broadhead and Dajaku who would’ve been perfect for this fixture.

It is a worry how we still continue to struggle physically (at the back especially), however in general it was a very positive performance and a good point in isolation.

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