clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

Filed under:

Talking Tactics: Bolton humiliation highlights the issues to solve for Lee Johnson’s successor

Whoever the next Sunderland manager is, they need to fix our leaky defence. What can they learn about our players from what happened at Bolton? We look at the data...

Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

Bolton’s press

From the start of the match, Bolton looked to press us high from their 5-3-2 shape.

Both Afolayan and Charles pressed our centre-backs aggressively, the wing-backs looked to jump high onto our fullbacks, and they aggressively went man-man in midfield and at the back.

Example of Bolton’s press down our left.

Bolton’s press was excellent, and they used traps and triggers to force us into countless mistakes in possession. A pass into our full-back who was positioned against the touchline, or a slow/square pass between our centre-backs, were example of some of the triggers Bolton used during these phases.

Bolton also used their press to set traps, especially in central areas, and there were multiple situations in the first half where our defenders were forced into passes into central areas and the Bolton midfield or backline were able to force turnovers.

The below clip perfectly summarises Bolton’s press, with a slow square pass between our centre-backs triggering the press from Charles who forces Doyle into a pass between the lines. Bolton then cut off the options in the midfield and turn the ball over:

These turnovers then created dangerous transition situations with the physical and mobile pairing of Charles and Afolayan isolated against Doyle and Batth in the channels.

Bolton’s second goal came from a turnover situation, albeit when we had possession in the final third, however still illustrated our vulnerabilities upon losing possession in the middle (an issue which continued into the second half).

High and central loss of possession with both midfielders ahead of the ball, leaving Doyle 1v1 with Charles.

As in the first half against Wycombe, this pressing generally forced us into hopeless long balls towards Stewart who was isolated against their back-three, and we also had no success for picking up any of the second balls.

Our only real route of progression in the first half was down the right through Winchester, where Dajaku’s positioning high and wide on the right pinned back their left wing-back and meant he couldn’t jump out to apply pressure (unlike on the right).

We often used bounce passes to find Winchester with time and space.

Out of possession issues

Alongside our issues against their press, another major issue was out of possession with both our pressing and settled shape incredibly poor.

As has been highlighted previously, we always look disorganised pressing a back three as our wingers press narrowly and up against their centre-backs. It often means our full-backs have to jump out, resulting in our centre-backs being left isolated and dragged towards the touchline. This was again the case again against Bolton as in the below examples:

Direct long ball from Trafford, Cirkin loses first ball and Doyle dragged towards touchline where uncomfortable.
Gooch jumps out to press the centre-back, Cirkin has to press the wing-back and subsequently dragging Doyle towards the touchline again.

Another issue with our wingers pressing up against their defence was it left a big gap between our nearest midfielder, and there was also no compactness and therefore lots of room for Bolton to drop in and receive.

Our backline did not push up and our midfield could not screen these areas, meaning there was acres of space between the lines to exploit as in the below clip.

Evatt’s adjustment

In the second half Evatt made a clever adjustment to prevent our easy progression through Winchester, with Afolayan dropping in on the left of their shape or using his body shape to cut the pass from Batth.

Continued issues

The problems from the first half continued into the second and became even worse.

Firstly, Stewart was just as isolated up top by himself and struggled to secure the first ball, with Batth and Hoffman the main culprits for these aimless long balls.

Nearly all of these long balls (blue) from Hoffman and Batth.

Our forward line were also still pressing their backline, however, there was no compactness or supporting pressure at all behind this, meaning there were massive spaces between our lines.

Their third goal summed up our passiveness and incredibly poor settled shape, with Gooch starting his press with no supporting pressure behind from Evans.

Gooch then can’t track his full-back and the pass into the wide area is again met with no pressure.

As the second half continued, we were also becoming more and more exposed on the turnover against Charles and Afolayan following turnovers in the middle or a failure to pick up the second ball.

Final thoughts

Overall it was a match that summed up some of our recurring issues under Lee Johnson.

We struggled to press their back-three, lacked compactness when forced into a mid/low block, and resorted to long balls towards Stewart when aggressively pressed with no sort of clear patterns or plan for playing through this.

The inability to address these issues has been exploited constantly during our poor runs of form, and has ultimately cost Johnson his job.

There are some good foundations to build on for our next manager however, with our high pressing and emphasis on getting the ball forward quickly for runners into space two elements of our play under Johnson that were big features and brought us success.

It is vital that Johnson’s successor can organise us defensively, and it is also worth nothing that some of our best performances this season have been when we have played mainly on the transition. Hopefully our eventual replacement is strong in these aspects in particular.


Fan Letters: Super Kev, Vladamir Putin, Tony Mowbray & HPUs… it’s all happening!


Three seemingly innocuous days that may shape the immediate & long-term future of Sunderland AFC


On This Day (8 Dec 1990): Late goal breaks Roker hearts as Lineker & Gazza have the last laugh

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

A daily roundup of Sunderland news from Roker Report