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Sunderland v Burton Albion - Sky Bet League 1

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Talking Tactics: Sunderland’s switch to a 3-5-2 didn’t work against Burton - here’s why

Roker Report’s resident performance analyst Coel Young dissects Sunderland’s play from Tuesday night to work out what the hell went wrong with Alex Neil’s 3-5-2 system...

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

Lineups and Shape

3-5-2 vs 4-5-1

Plan in possession

Although it didn’t play out to plan at all as will be covered below, the change in shape brought about a few tweaks to our plan in possession.

The midfield triangle remained from the 4-3-3 shape played in previous matches, however, within this shape it was the wingbacks in Gooch and Cirkin that provided the width on the right and left respectively.

Defoe and Stewart were generally positioned in the channels between Burton’s right-back and left-back, and Winchester looked to push forward to create the wide overloads on the right from his centre-back slot, with Evans plugging any gaps he left behind.

Shape in possession vs Burton’s man-marking system in midfield.

Direct play

Whether this was by instruction or because Burton went man-man in the middle of the pitch, we often played directly over the midfield and into Stewart who had more support in the new shape.

This did provide some success with Defoe able to pick-up a couple of knockdowns in the first half, and our midfield also looked to position themselves closely to Stewart in anticipation for the second ball.

Similarly, when we targeted the left channel after drawing in their press we again had some success, isolating Stewart against Hughes due to Burton’s right back having to jump out to press Cirkin.

However, we struggled to consistently turn any of this direct play into any sort of real platform to build on, and often neglected an easy pass into midfield when Evans was free (such as in the below clip).

Our switches of play also didn’t create any real isolated 1v1 situations.

Lack of flexibility

Although we seemingly used the back three to give us more cover against counter-attacks (as per Neil’s post-match comments), we did lose out on a lot of the flexibility that the 4-3-3 gave us especially in the wide areas in relation to rotations.

In the 4-3-3 we had our winger, full-back and midfielder working in triangles to disorganise the opposition backline...

... however, the change of shape meant the strikers weren’t involved in these rotations and made our play quite static and easy to contain.

We couldn’t get any combinations going as a result of this, and in the below clip, Defoe does well to pin his centre-back and open the channel between full-back and centre-back which Pritchard makes a third man run into, however, Gooch neglects this option and dribbles infield.

Considering Burton’s man-man approach in these wide areas, they constantly matched up (similar to Wimbledon) and made any of our attempts to build up and combine ineffective.

Burton defending our right with man-marking example. Borthwich-Jackson made it essentially a back-five at times with his tracking of Gooch.

Poor decision making and quality

One glaring issue throughout the match and in the second half particularly was how bad our decision-making was in various aspects of our play.

When building from the back we forced the long ball when it was not necessary to.

Here, we needlessly switch the ball to the other side despite us being underloaded and having far more numbers closer to the ball...

... and we hit a lot of balls centrally when there was no midfield support, which meant easy turnovers for Burton (unlike when we played passes into the left channel for Stewart which had far more success).

For Burton’s goal, Patterson released the ball far too early before our defensive line even had time to squeeze up, resulting in us losing the first ball and leaving acres of space between our midfield and defensive line to run into.

As previously mentioned, Gooch’s decisions to dribble infield were frustrating, and our lack of combinations was further compounded by both poor quality and decision-making in and around the box.

On transition, Doyle (although it’s difficult to criticise considering he’s clearly running on fumes) completely overcommits, resulting in him being easily beaten when it was easier to stay a few yards off and look to delay/force wide. This unfortunately was one of a few mistakes Doyle made defensively throughout the match.

The decision to replace Gooch with Embleton as the player giving width on the right made sense in theory, with the nearby midfielder ideally clearing out the space inside (as Winchester does below) for Embleton to cut inside and deliver an inswinger into the box:

However, Embleton’s quality from wide was incredibly poor, with every cross basically either under or overhit.

Finally, despite it being late in the match where we needed width to pin Burton in, Cirkin comes narrow despite there being no width provided outside of him, summing up our poor decision-making throughout the match.

Second half positives

There were a few instances where we showed better quality on the ball second half when looking to progress through midfield.

Here for example, Pritchard and Gooch’s positioning splits the Burton midfield, opening up a gap centrally for Defoe to drop into and allowing us to quickly attack the Burton backline.

These moments of progression through the middle however were too few and far between.


Although it sounds a bizarre thing to say considering it was a very poor performance on the whole, Neil does appear to be trying to implement a style that allows us to gain far more control over games than we did under Lee Johnson, with clearer avenues of attack through our wide rotations and bodies in the box, as well as more covering players behind the ball in case of turnovers.

Having said that, even though it was a perfectly good idea in theory as it allowed us to play both Defoe and Stewart whilst maintaining our width, I don’t think the change to the 3-5-2 worked particularly well and meant we lost a lot of flexibility in comparison to the 4-3-3 (which actually allowed us to pin in MK Dons for large periods in the second half last weekend despite the openness on counter attacks).

It appears as though Neil is still trying to find the best balance in terms of shape and profile of the players to use out wide, with Gooch the third player in three matches selected to provide width on the right. I’m confident with more time on the training pitch and some of our rested/injured players returning, results will pick up to gain a bit of momentum for the season run-in.


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