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Talking Tactics: Alex Neil changed the formation on Saturday at Wimbledon – here’s how it worked

Sunderland’s new head coach only had 40 minutes to work with the team before Saturday’s game, but made some noticeable tactical changes.

Lineups and Shapes

Despite only having one training session on the Friday prior to the match, Alex Neil made changes to both the starting shape and some of our features in and out of possession.

Advanced midfielders

One of the biggest changes that was clear to everyone was the shift to a 4-3-3 system, with Neil and Matete playing higher than Winchester at the base.

It was noticeable from the very start of the match how high both Neil and Matete were playing when we were in possession, generally positioned in the channel between Wimbledon’s full-back and centre-back on the left and right sides respectively. Pritchard and Clarke mainly looked to stay wide initially to create this gap in the backline.

Both Matete and Neil constantly looked to make runs through or receive in this channel when either our full-back or winger received the ball.

Another way we looked to make use of our advanced midfielders and width with the wingers was through fast switches of play to the far side, which again triggered runs in behind from our midfielders or underlaps through the full-backs.

Wide rotations

The wide rotations between our winger, full-back and midfielder were another stand-out feature of the performance. Although these movements generally didn’t come to much, it is clear the rotations are a feature Neil will look to use when trying to generate chances from out wide. These rotations generally involved: one player wide, one player advanced between the lines and the other behind the ball in a covering position in case the ball was lost. Here are a few examples:

Rotations down the left.

Neil moves wide, Cirkin makes the underlapping run, Pritchard moves behind the ball for support in case the ball is lost:

Here, following a switch out to the right, Clarke’s wide positioning pulls out the left-back, opening the channel for Matete’s run. As Clarke moves inside, Matete stays high, pinning Rudoni and opening up the space outside for Hume:

The best example of the effectiveness of these rotations didn’t come until the 93rd minute, where Neil, Cirkin and Pritchard dismantled the Wimbledon backline by moving the ball quickly:

Man-man in midfield

There was also a significant shift in how we set up off the ball. Under Lee Johnson we generally were a bit more zonal in our pressing and defended space/zones, however on Saturday we adopted a man-man approach in midfield:

I think this approach should definitely suit the profiles of Neil and Matete who are incredibly athletic and aggressive ball-winners that can cover lots of ground across the pitch. Here, for example, Matete presses high yet is able to quickly recover back to provide support behind Clarke. Neil then moves across to man-mark Wimbledon’s deepest midfielder and cut the pitch in half and Stewart prevents the pass between the centre-backs.

The risk of this approach is that sides might be able to overload the spaces around Winchester, which can happen if Neil or Matete are pulled too high due to their man-marking responsibilities and the backline aren’t aggressive enough in stepping out to the free man.

Wimbledon defensively

However, despite the changes to our shape and attempts to overload Wimbledon in the wide areas with rotations and runs in behind from the midfielders, Wimbledon were excellent in defending the wide areas. Rudoni and McCormick on the sides of Wimbledon’s midfield-three were especially excellent in doubling up with their full-back to track runners and prevent any combinations inside.

This included when there were any quick switches of play to the far side and Pritchard/Clarke looked to be isolated against their full-backs:

Wimbledon shift over quickly to double up.

Our loss of possession chart shows how effective Wimbledon’s approach was in stopping our build-up play in the wide areas by constantly forcing turnovers.

Lots of turnovers down our left.

Sunderland also did not help themselves in some of their decisions in build-up either (which is likely the ‘naivety’ Neil referred to post-match), often playing long balls into the channel when unnecessary and forcing switches of play when we could have instead been more patient in looking to shift the Wimbledon defensive block.


In general, it was a game of very few chances, however, there were some early signs of the changes Neil will look to make both in and out of possession. I think the 4-3-3 shape suits our personnel (in midfield especially), and it was positive to see some basic aspects such as the rotations out wide had been worked on despite only one training session.

As Neil alluded to post-match, he will have a challenge in striking the right balance in terms of fitness, as you can see the effects that so many games are having on the performances of Dan Neil and Ross Stewart in particular, with Neil guilty for a significant number of the turnovers mentioned in the section above.


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