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Sunderland v Portsmouth - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Tactics: How did Sunderland edge a tactical stalemate against Pompey?

How did Lee Johnson manage to get the better of Danny Cowley’s Portsmouth? Our resident analyst Coel Young dissects the data to find out.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Starting Lineups and Shapes

Portsmouth: Direct play and pressing

In the opening 25 minutes we struggled to control Portsmouth’s direct play into their forwards, who were positioned across the width of the pitch.

Both Stewart and Dajaku generally looked to force the long ball from their side centre-backs, however whenever we were able to Portsmouth made it stick, giving them a platform to build off and forcing us deeper.

Although our pressing was generally okay in the opening 25 minutes as in the above clips, we were poor at reacting to the second ball from the long balls that were forced from this pressing. Morrell and Thompson in the middle were also tidy in possession during this period, dropping in to overload us in the middle third and looked to switch play out to their main outlet in Hackett on the left.

Morrell and Thompson pass locations: dominant in the middle third of the pitch in the opening 25 minutes.

The below clip shows how even if we forced Portsmouth to play long, they were more alert to the second ball and the double pivot of Morrell and Thompson were available to retain possession, consequently giving them a platform to build from.

Similarly, Portsmouth pressed us high effectively, which resulted in a number of errors and long balls (resulting in a loss of possession). As can be seen in the below clips, they were firstly effective at screening passes into Neil and Evans, and then at forcing the long ball from our centre-backs.

Harness (10) ensures Neil is screened before trapping Doyle against the touchline.
Here Walker and Curtis press directly against our centre-backs whilst preventing passes centrally into midfield.

We played 25 long balls in the opening 25 minutes as opposed to 35 in the entirety of the second half, showing the effectiveness of Portsmouth’s pressing and how we were pinned into our own third due to losing a lot of first and second balls from direct play.

Dots show the location of our long balls in the opening 25 minutes.


However, throughout the first half when we were able to prevent Portsmouth from winning the first and second ball, they looked very stretched and open in transition. One of the benefits of our split striker shape was that if we were able to turn the ball over, we already had Stewart and Dajaku positioned in the channels and Embleton centrally as our outlets.

Stewart was generally positioned in the left channel in the first half and as usual provided our main platform for progressing the ball, dragging their centre-back Carter out of his slot as a result and creating gaps to exploit behind the Portsmouth backline.

Our 5-2-1-2 shape also meant that when/if we were able to win the first or second ball then we already had three players ahead to play into, and with Portsmouth so stretched in these situations (in addition to an immobile backline), it provided our most dangerous moments.

The intensity of our pressing was also improved after the initial 25 minute period, and although the triggers were still the same (wide centre-backs receiving the ball), we were far more aggressive in our closing down and in our duels when the long ball was played into our own third.

The opening goal itself came from a good bit of collective pressing from our forwards, followed by decisive decision making and excellent weight of pass from Stewart to roll in Embleton to finish.

Backline dominance

These improved aspects of our performance in the final 20 minutes of the first half carried on into the second. One main aspect of our second half performance was the aggressiveness of our backline when Portsmouth looked to play long. Unlike in the first half when these direct passes were sticking with their forwards, it was a completely different story in the second, with our back-three (Batth especially) excellent in winning their duels and the first ball.

Unlike in the first half, Portsmouth found it impossible to find a platform to build any sort of pressure as they weren’t picking up the second balls either.

The lack of control they had is shown in the passing numbers of Morrell and Thompson, who completed 28 and 24 passes in the first half respectively, in comparison to 18 and 3 in the second half (Williams completed 15 in his 25 minutes or so on the pitch when he replaced Thompson).

This then enabled us to squeeze higher up the pitch, and Portsmouth hardly threatened all second half.


Considering direct play into our own third has been the main avenue of success for opposition sides this season so far, Batth could be a hugely important signing in allowing us to win duels in our backline and prevent this sort of direct play from being a platform to build off.

Our shape also worked well, despite it making the game quite scrappy due to the number of 1v1 battles it created, and another promising aspect was how threatening we looked on transition in the first half especially.

There must also be a mention for the performances of Cirkin and Doyle down our left, who were both outstanding on the ball in the second half and were hugely important in allowing us to retain possession and rest with the ball.


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