Lee Johnson named an unchanged eleven from the 3-0 win at Doncaster, with Carl Winchester unable to shake off a knock and return to the side. Thus, the usual asymmetrical formation which morphs from a 3-5-2 in defence to a 4-2-3-1 in attack also remained.
Looking immediately at both the scoreline and the xG chart below, you’d think this was a very one-sided affair. Ross Stewart alone had the same probability of scoring from an attempt on goal as the entire Sheff Wed side combined - but the first 30 minutes was far from this.
Even Start - Until the Press Failed
The match was a very even affair the first half-hour, despite Ross Stewart’s goal in the 12th minute to take the lead. In terms of xG, Sheff Wed created far more than they did for the rest of the game put together in this period, with our chances very much coming both against the run of play and from very low probability goalscoring situations.
In his post-match analysis on EFL on Quest, George Elek mentioned that we were not on top gear in this game, and sent a warning to the rest of the league to fear when we do. Some took this as an insult, but personally, I think he’s both correct and his intent was more so as a compliment. It is this nervy first 30 which showed that we were not quite on top gear - at least until the second goal went in.
Sheff Wed bullied us at Hillsborough, taking advantage of a defence that was out-of-sorts after the Rotherham mauling and played fast, incisive football predicated upon their physical and height advantage. Lee Gregory, Florian Kamberi and Theo Corbeanu in particular took advantage with their impressive running behind Callum Doyle.
However, the latter two did not start this game and Gregory was paired up top with Callum Paterson. The Scottish utility-man can play pretty much every position on the pitch but has mostly been converted to an immobile target man - playing in 14 of his 20 appearances this season either up top or in support of the strikers.
Thus, Sheff Wed did not have Kamberi’s presence in their pressing work off the ball. He & Gregory were a constant thorn in our side at Hillsborough in their keen ability to stop us from progressing with the ball through the middle of the pitch.
This, juxtaposed alongside their typically high defensive line (which was present in the reverse fixture at the SoL), totally stifled Ross Stewart’s ability to hold the ball & bring our attacking midfielders into the game.
Paterson provided zero pressure upon our defence and midfield, allowing us to freely progress attacks from deep and exploit their high-line and spaces behind those vacated by their ill-disciplined midfield trio.
In the following GIF, not only is there zero pressure upon the ball aside from individual runs to close a gap by Hunt & Wing, but Paterson loses the header to Flanagan, then proceeds to shout at his teammates instead of pressing the ball carrier.
This is merely one example of how Sheff Wed totally lost their discipline in the final third, and a lot of that was down to Paterson. Once their press was totally broken, and Dan Neil and Corry Evans were allowed the freedom to dictate midfield, their defensive line was exposed and they fell apart as the goals went in.
Progressive Pass, Progressive Pass, Progressive Pass
This is the third game this season that we have dispatched a side 5-0 on a midweek night at the SoL. While the others were both newly-promoted teams, Sheff Wed are playoff contenders. They were recently relegated and still have a squad full of quality for this level.
They came here to bully us - their blueprint was drawn and carried out so efficaciously at Hillsborough they did the John Major. Their tactic wasn’t entirely broken - it was just missing a few pieces. They came to Sunderland to shithouse us, and we played around them and dismantled a defence that was the second-best in the league before the match, and which was unbeaten in their last 12 in the league.
We weren’t at top gear for the start, but in the subsequent 60 minutes, we proved to them again and again why we are real promotion contenders.
Callum Doyle came under immense pressure early in the game, with Hunt, Paterson and Gregory all attempting to take advantage of his age and lacking experience. They focussed numerous attacks down our left-hand side and particularly attempted to bully him through Paterson.
He stood up to that threat, and after he got his goal his confidence was flying. It’s arguably the first time in a long-time that we have seen his marauding runs and the wonderful close control to dribble out of difficult situations since early in the season.
Yet, since the re-introduction of Bailey Wright and this new formation, most of our progression from deep has been down the right-hand side, just take a look at the pass maps below:
Thorben Hoffmann sometimes flies close to the sun with his distribution, but the speed of his passing out from the back and the risk he takes is so important in our counter-press.
This was a game where Dan Neil was actually unusually quiet on the ball and showed far more maturity in his work off it. In his stead, Wright and Flanagan took up the mantle and distributed it brilliantly. It is no coincidence that four of the goals started down this right-flank.
Above is a measure of progressive passes. These are not merely just passes played forward, but are defined by Wyscout as “forward passes that are 30m long when the pass starts in the team’s own half, or at least 10m in length in the opponent’s half”. According to WhoScored, this is the most we completed in a single game this season.
To get the best out of Nathan Broadhead before his injury, Lee Johnson identified his ability to run off the shoulder from deep. Ross Stewart is fast and his movement is stellar, but he doesn’t possess the speed nor dribbling ability that Broadhead does.
The build-up play against Sheff Wed was still looking for that direct release down the channels in the final third, but in order to release Stewart (to score two of his goals on the night) we need to be 20-30 yards higher up the pitch.
Thus the huge quantity of progressive passes. We worked the ball in slowly up the pitch and waited to strike behind the away side’s criminally high defensive line.
Johnson, once again, has identified the strengths of his players and adapted our playing style to those available on our own record books in order to take advantage of the weaknesses that the opposition possess.