Tony Mowbray introduced a lot of “second-choice”, “fringe” and younger players as wholesale change was the theme of the lineup at the DW Stadium on Thursday evening.
Due to injuries to senior players, others just returning from fitness and the pace at which we are playing matches at the minute, Abdoullah Ba, Edouard Michut, Ellis Simms, Bailey Wright and Trai Hume all started in place of Patrick Roberts, Corry Evans, Ross Stewart, Dennis Cirkin and Lynden Gooch respectively.
As a result, Tony Mowbray protected his quite young midfield of Neil and Michut by deploying the lads in a 3-4-3 with captain Wright alongside player of the season - thus far - Luke O’Nien. They were the only players over the age of 23 in an eleven with an average age that belied just short of 22.
First of all, it is probably worth noting that Stewart’s absence was likely not caused by the “leak” to Keith Downie earlier in the day - but almost certainly the Scot’s agent has used it to his advantage to stir consternation in and outside of Sunderland to draw the attention of suitors and pressurise the club’s hierarchy. It’s typical agent work in the modern era and he is probably being quite shrewd, and doesn’t overtly worry me. But anyway, I digress.
Mogga had clearly instructed his young side to pressurise Wigan’s makeshift defence - one which included a winger at left-back and a young central defender only making his second appearance of his career flanked alongside Curtis Tilt - a League One regular probably playing above his level and is currently also not a first team starter when all their defenders are fit.
This worked early on, and despite this being just the first time that Amad, Michut and Ba have started together in their careers, it is clear they spend a lot of time together both away from the club, and crucially, on the training pitch.
In fact, the trio passed to/from each other all more than ten times each, with Michut and Amad linking up more times than any other outfield players have in a match this season aside from central defenders (14), according to Opta.
Ba came in for his first start since a poor game down at Cardiff and this was Michut’s first start of the season - and it was clear why the pair were signed, oozing quality on the ball. Michut in particular provided a calmness in possession and keen ability to take care of the ball that we have often lacked in recent weeks while Ba was energetic and exciting in attack.
However, Dan Neil really matured against Wigan for the second time this season. He was the leader in midfield and was tasked to play more defensively and limited than you’d expect. Overall, he completed 82% of his passes (40/49), 9 clearances, interceptions and tackles, 90% of his aerial and ground duels, and made 2 key passes and take ons respectively. In the home game, Mowbray again tasked Neil as a lone defensive midfielder and this allowed us to play more attacking midfielders ahead of him to press Wigan, harass their ball carrier in defence, and pin them back - from the off we did that on Thursday.
Our main source of attack was to try and take advantage of Wigan’s narrow shape and lack of discipline from their midfield. Lang and Asgaard are both not keen on tracking back while Naylor and Power really struggle on the transition - it is largely the reason why we’ve now dispatched this same group five games in a row. Thus, with Hume and Clarke playing very advanced, Amad and Ba would look to drift wide into the channels to both create space for Simms to run across Hughes/Tilt but also create overloads against McClean and Darikwa - stretching the defence, this is well shown in the move for when Amad hit the bar:
Hume’s average position for the opening salvo was just off McClean’s shoulder as we forced Wigan’s defenders on average to their own 20-yard line, while Simms, Ba, and Amad forced 6 turnovers or losses of possession from/by Tilt, Power and Hughes in the same period of time. Hume got an assist by ghosting in at the far post unchallenged and Simms finished the move well.
Alike to the Boxing day winner, unfortunately, due to the nuance and annoyance of modern-day stats, this does not count as a set-piece goal because it was in the “second phase” of play, but for all intents and purposes, it really is another from the set-piece.
I haven’t had a chance to research our average defensive line nor PPDA (opposition passes per defensive action) for the game due to the quick turnaround of fixtures, but on the eye it is surely among the highest of the season, just take a look at the positional domination below, bearing in mind that Wigan are still in possession of the ball:
We literally blew Wigan apart and if not for poor finishing, would have been out of sight. 44% of our attacks came down the right-hand side and through Amad. The younger lads were shaken, however, by Wigan’s goal right against the run of play. From the start of the move Ellis Simms was caught on his heels as he gave the ball away too cheaply, then from there, we were too passive in reacting to Wigan’s movement and guilty of ball-watching before Anthony Patterson then palmed a tame shot right into Will Keane’s path.
This is another mistake Patto has made in recent months and our inability to get a proper rival for the position in the summer now is galling. His potential is clear to see, but in recent weeks he is showing a decline in ball distribution, shot-stopping and control of the penalty box. In terms of xGOT prevention (expected goals on target - the probability of shots on target resulting in goals) he ranks among the highest in the league:
However, in terms of goals prevented, he ranks in the lowest 20th percentile:
Thus, he saves a lot of shots and especially ones that are ranked as more “difficult”, yet also makes more mistakes. Only Lumley, Amos, Steffen and Button have made more “errors leading to a goal”. The stats are mixed, and in recent weeks so is the eye test - but he needs confidence and there is without a doubt a top-quality goalkeeper in there just going through a rough patch. Cut out mistakes, focus a bit more in-game and work on distribution and he can easily continue his strong development already at such a young age for a goalkeeper.
This young side is at times, a glass cannon. In reality, each individual player has at times been a microcosm of the entire project: early in their (its) development, sometimes a little naive and inconsistent but absolute mustard technically, and with time can only get better and better. This game followed a similar trend. Mogga got his subs right again, introducing some much-needed steel and experience through Roscoe, Pritch (barely), Roberts and Matete which clearly settled nerves. The latter was a bit of an unsung hero for me and has again proved his worth - he really is outstanding defensively and possesses physical attributes (both in terms of strength and pace) that no other central midfielder has in such abundance. While clearly not as technically gifted as the others, he is a good foil and should be kept on in January for the remainder of the season.
However, Patrick Roberts alongside Amad Diallo should terrify any defence in the league. The pair often got in each other’s way when Amad first broke into the team, trying to play the same role - but now the coaching staff have clearly identified their best positions they are finally on the pitch at the same time and on about 6 wavelengths ahead of other Championship defences.
They combined (also with Neil, Matete and others) for the third goal absolutely beautifully. Such was the nonchalance and ease at which they cut Wigan apart, it looked more like we were taking the piss and ticking down the clock, not breaking through to make it 3-1.
The finish may have been a deflection, but that backheel from Roberts to Neil and subsequent 1-2 is liquid football.
Amad and Roberts are totally different options to Jack Clarke on the other side and other attacking talents. Clarke has got some stick, but he is still vital to the side for his ability to carry the ball, provide an outlet, and arguably more than anyone else barring Roscoe, get us up the pitch at pace.
Below is a series of stats collated by The Analyst, showing the potency, creativity and effectiveness of Sunderland’s attacking play all season long:
Just imagine had we not spent like 6 weeks without a striker and could actually score regularly on set-pieces.
I still think staying where we are and slowly building is best, but let's go find out the fun way.