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Talking Tactics: Breaking down Sunderland’s fantastic second half performance against Millwall

In a drab first half, Sunderland were far too narrow and played into Millwall’s hands - but playing riskier and stretching the opposition made a huge difference in a dominant second half.

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

While our last match seems like an age ago, Tony Mowbray had a selection dilemma on his hands after the return from injury and/or suspension of the vast majority of our regular defence.

In the 2-1 victory over Birmingham before the World Cup break, we saw Luke O’Nien suspended while Aji Alese, Dennis Cirkin and Lynden Gooch were out injured.

In their place were the impressive Bailey Wright, Trai Hume and Niall Huggins. Huggins in particular was excellent on the day, playing his first full 90 since returning from a series of injuries that kept him out for over a year.

However, with Bailey Wright still in Qatar, Tony Mowbray returned to largely a side that served him well earlier in the year with Gooch, O’Nien and Alese being marshalled by Danny Batth. In midfield and attack, things were more settled with the same front six starting together for the second time in a row.

Millwall really are the Wycombe of the Championship, but with two players of genuine quality in Zian Flemming and George Honeyman.

Their movement, crosses into the box and interchanging of positions really was Millwall’s highlight of the game - until both either faded or struggled to deal with our width later on.

That aside, you can tell why Millwall are the most successful and dangerous side in the entire league from set pieces, as you can see below:

Millwall’s two central defenders are also two of the top four most dominant central defenders this season aerially:

Their team is set up to be solid and grab goals from a set piece - Honeyman arguably has the most accurate delivery in the entire league and was an ideal replacement for the now-departed Jed Wallace in that aspect.

We got dragged into their game and allowed them to bully us in the first half. The defence and midfield sat too deep - wary of Tom Bradshaw, Honeyman and Flemming on the break, while the entire team were far too narrow.

Millwall play quite narrow and compact as most direct teams do.

At half-time, it was clear Tony Mowbray and the Sunlun backroom staff wanted us to play more dynamically, more on the front foot and wider to take advantage of the size of the SoL pitch.

The visitors may have sat 6th before kick-off, but much of that was predicated upon their superior home form in the claustrophobic Den.

The difference between their home and away form is quite stark:

Ordinarily, this is exactly the type of game we would struggle in.

While playing some very expansive football this season, sides who come to soak up pressure and counter or steal a goal through set-pieces have left the SoL happy this season.

Millwall excel at the nasty parts of the game, are the best side in the league at set pieces and love a physical battle. Sunderland have been the polar opposite this season. But in the end, a fully-fit striker, pure quality, and Danny Batth made the difference.

I couldn’t write this without mentioning just how absolutely outstanding the big man was at the weekend, so much so that it prompted the following from Millwall boss Gary Rowett when asked why they were stifled from set-pieces:

Batth has arguably been our best player this season, and this is precisely why.

He has stepped up and is the fucrum of our defence and in particular from the set piece.

He was so effective on Saturday that his decent stats of 4.1 aerial duels won per game at a rate of 72% was dwarfed by the league-high statistics in one game of 10 aerials won from a possible 12 in one game alone.

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