clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Sunderland v Burnley - Sky Bet Championship

Filed under:

Talking Tactics: Why was Sunderland’s collapse against Burnley probably nothing to worry about?

RR’s resident analyst Coel Young dissects Sunderland’s collapse against Burnley, now that the dust has settled - and he doesn’t think there’s too much to worry about!

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Lineups and shape

First half

Despite being lined up in a 4-2-3-1 on paper, Burnley’s in possession shape differed slightly and looked more like a 4-3-3.

Both fullbacks tucked inside and narrow (similar to how City use their full-backs), Cullen sat at the base of the midfield, Brownhill moved higher as one of the two 10’s with Gudmundsson, whilst Tella and Zaroury held width.

Fullbacks tucked inside, Brownhill moves higher between the lines

Considering Burnley are the highest scorers in the division, in the first half we were outstanding out of possession.

Pritchard and Diallo stayed narrow in relation to Burnley’s full-backs and prevented passes centrally, and when the pass was played wide this was our trigger for Cirkin and Hume to engage their wingers.

Pritchard and Diallo narrow to cut off central passes, Clarke and Embleton screen off passes into Cullen

When they did jump out, Burnley’s 10’s would look to make movements into the channel, however Evans and Neil did a brilliant job in tracking these runs and plugging the gaps in the centre-back and full-back channel.

Neil plugging the gap in the centre-back and full-back channel as Cirkin moves wide to engage Tella
Same with Evans on the other side

In addition to this, Embleton was so disciplined in screening/marking Cullen, who is usually the one who dictates the tempo for Burnley.

Because of the man-marking responsibilities of our midfielders, this would inevitably create gaps for Barnes to drop into centrally.

However, O’Nien was excellent in defending on the front foot, and never allowed Barnes to secure possession - and the striker was subsequently substituted at half-time.

Barnes drops centrally due to our midfielders being occupied with man-marking tasks, O’Nien steps out brilliantly

As a result of all of this, Burnley’s attacking output was limited almost entirely to crosses, which we dealt with easily.

Burnley with very few touches in our penalty box in the first half

In possession, we also executed a really effective game plan to exploit Burnley’s high press and high defensive line.

Primarily, we would look to make a few passes in our own defensive third to draw the Burnley press in (especially their wingers), before looking for longer passes directly into the front line or wider areas.

Entire Burnley midfield move forward to press, leaving massive spaces out wide and behind their midfield

This approach gave us lots of success in the first half, as we surrounded the second ball well and at times found ourselves 4v4 against the Burnley backline after playing more directly, especially with longer diagonals into wider areas where both Hume and Cirkin would look to push forwards.

Crowding the second ball well, Clarke looks to move beyond last line
Draw in their press, Hume moves high and wins the flick, leaving Diallo 1v1 against Taylor in the channel
4v4 against Burnley’s last line following great switch from O’Nien, their wingers absolutely nowhere to be seen

We also used quick combinations to play through Burnley’s pressure, and Clarke especially on a few occasions was one good touch from being clean through.

Again massive spaces behind the Burnley midfield line, Clarke off the shoulder
Quick combination to break out of our shape, Burnley commit both their fullbacks forward

Our second goal summed up how little defensive work the Burnley wingers did out of possession and how high they were committed up the pitch, with Tella on the far side nowhere to be seen as the ball dropped to Neil as the far post.

Second half

Tactically, very little changed in the second half, however Vincent Kompany made some personnel changes which ultimately got Burnley the victory. The timing of their set-piece goal was also massively important in shifting the momentum early in the half.

Burnley’s equaliser came from a situation which was similar to that in the first half, with Pritchard narrow in relation to Roberts’ positioning and the Burnley winger giving lots of width on the far side. However, obviously Burnley now had the left-footed Benson out there, and we were punished after Cirkin was too slow to engage and prevent the cross.

Situation before 2-2: A situation we’re in control of but Cirkin doesn’t engage quickly enough

This was Burnley’s biggest avenue of attack, and they used the width of the pitch a lot better following the interval with long diagonals, especially after we started to push players forward which left our fullbacks isolated at times.

This time Burnley catch us of out of balance when chasing the game, Benson 1v1 out wide

Outside of this and some poor unforced mistakes, I actually thought our second half performance was fine.

Burnley are really poorly organised out of possession with massive gaps between their lines (our first goal was evident of that), and we continued to exploit this throughout.

Diallo especially picked up some great positions in these spaces such as when he slipped Clarke through on goal, and at other times our decision-making let us down.

Acres of space behind the Burnley midfield line
Easy to draw the Burnley midfield out and play behind

We also pressed high well at times to force some high turnovers, with Embleton again doing a good job in man-marking Cullen in this example:

Cut the pitch in half well and force the turnover when Burnley look to play back into Cullen

Ultimately, Burnley’s winner came from a long ball and Hume not being aggressive enough on the second ball, which we were punished by with a brilliant finish from Zaroury. Again, outside of this Burnley didn’t really threaten despite having more sustained possession in the second half.

The one aspect that could be questioned was the substitutes. The introduction of Bennette made sense, however perhaps not for Pritchard who is our most reliable outlet in allowing us to retain possession higher up the pitch. I also think Evans’ experience would’ve been important in giving us patience in possession when trying to get back in the game, but again it’s hard to tell whether his withdrawal was down to managing minutes.


In general I thought it was a good performance against one of the best attacking sides in the division who arguably possess more quality then anyone else we’ll face this season. The annoying aspect is how easily avoidable the goals were, such as intensity in closing down and winning a second ball. I definitely don’t buy arguments that it showed we are mentally weak or have a lack of character, but instead just a few moments of inexperience have been brutally punished by high-calibre players.

The only blame that could potentially be levelled at Mowbray is at his substitutions, because tactically he got it pretty much spot on, nullifying so many of Burnley’s threats and exploiting their defensive weaknesses with the game plan. I’d say most criticisms, if any, should be towards the recruitment team, as with such a young squad that massively lacks in physicality and experience some of the moments we experienced against Burnley are unavoidable.

Luton will be a massive challenge again next week due to the physicality with which they play, and again we’ll be targeted with long balls and set plays. However, I think it’s clear that when some key players return from injuries, we won’t be far away from being a side that can push into the top half of the table, especially following the World Cup break.


Will Mike Dodds persist with Sunderland’s experiment with a back five?


Sunderland’s final fixture run-in looks tough, but can they build some consistency?


Editorial: Just another week in the history of Sunderland AFC

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Roker Report Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Sunderland news from Roker Report