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Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Tactics: Attacking centre-backs and incisive possession - our best performance under Alex Neil?

“On the whole, as a complete performance this was probably our best under Neil so far” - Coel Young is very complimentary of how Sunderland played at the weekend, despite the fact we couldn’t find the net!

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Lineups and shape (Lincoln: 5-3-2, Sunderland 5-2-1-2)

Right side

Throughout the match one of the key features of our play in possession was how we looked to progress through the right channel, particularly through Patrick Roberts. Roberts was excellent throughout the match, and importantly mixed up his ability to receive in between the lines with runs into the channel to isolate the Lincoln centre-backs and attack them 1v1.

Top image shows how we built a lot of our attacks down our right, and Roberts touchmap (bottom) shows how he varied his positioning between drifting wide and receiving in central areas.

One common pattern that could be seen in the first half especially was Roberts dropping in towards the ball to receive to feet, dragging the Lincoln centre-back out of his slot, and O’Nien would then look to make a run into the vacated space from his more advanced ‘Number 10’ role.

This pattern provided us with some promising moments throughout the first half. Here for example, Roberts drops in to receive to feet from Gooch, pulling out Lincoln’s left centre-back, and O’Nien makes an excellent run into the channel to exploit the space.

The relationship between Roberts and O’Nien looked really good throughout, with both also combining for arguably our best chance of the match once again down our right side.

In the absence of Pritchard we lose a lot of our ability to receive the ball in tight spaces behind opposition midfield lines, however, Roberts seems more than capable of filling that void. Alex Neil seems to have found the ideal role for him that doesn’t affect the balance of the side as part of a front two with Stewart, giving him to freedom to drop in to get the ball to feet or spin into the channel to go 1v1 with defenders.

In the below two clips you can see the effectiveness of Roberts drifting inside from the right to receive in these advanced areas.

Roberts starts wide before drifting inside to receive and dribble diagonally as Lincoln recover across.

Cirkin and Winchester

Another excellent part of our performance in possession against Lincoln was the roles of Cirkin and Winchester. Both ‘centre-backs’ were given the freedom to drive aggressively forward with the ball, which massively helped us in overloading the Lincoln midfield three who were given man-marking roles to our midfield three.

Cirkin especially seems to be benefiting from this change in role, as he’s an excellent carrier of the ball at speed and is comfortable in advanced areas due to his ability to turn quickly out of pressure.

For large periods of the match the roles of Winchester and Cirkin enabled us to constantly bypass the pressure of Hopper and Marquis, with both essentially the free men outside of the Lincoln shape and their midfield trio who were occupied by their man-marking tasks.

In the below clips you can see how excellent Cirkin is at carrying forward at speed into open space with small touches and lots of control:

Lincoln’s midfielder occupied by their man-marking jobs and unsure whether to leave their man and apply pressure.

The build-up to the penalty shout on Roberts again showed the benefits of allowing our centre-backs (and Cirkin especially) to drive forward with the ball.

Fiorini is caught 2v1 against Neil and Cirkin who can easily play around and past him, Cirkin cuts inside to find O’Nien and Roberts is denied a stonewall penalty.

On our right, Winchester driving forward with the ball was also incredibly effective, here stepping into midfield to bypass the Lincoln shape. Roberts here pulls into the channel to attack his man 1v1 and Gooch times his run well from wing-back:

Jermain Defoe’s shot which narrowly missed towards the end of the game summed up the incisiveness of our possession perfectly. At the start of the move, Winchester’s more advanced position near the touchline drags out the nearby midfielder, allowing Evans to receive inside and behind the Lincoln shape.

Roberts picks the ball up brilliantly on the half-turn and slides in Defoe, who manages to create space and narrowly miss the bottom corner:

In order to ensure we had some stability behind the ball when Cirkin and Winchester pushed on, Neil and Evans were tasked with dropping in to the back-three to plug any gaps.

Evans is given a lot of stick by fans, however, he is very disciplined in his positioning constantly looks to fill in any spaces behind the ball whenever it is lost. He has some obvious limitations in possession (showing for the ball for example) and might not be as exciting as Matete or Neil, but you can understand why he has been a constant in the side so far and gives us some much-needed balance in the midfield area.

Finally, out of possession and on turnovers, both Winchester and Cirkin also aggressively applied pressure into the opposition half by getting tight to their man and preventing them from turning. This again was important in pinning Lincoln in for sustained spells.

High press and defensive shape

Despite it being arguably our best performance in possession, once again we were very organised off the ball and had clear triggers on when to press and the areas in which we’d look to win the ball back (a complete contrast to under Johnson).

Starting with our high press, Roberts and Stewart would look to press onto the Lincoln back-three, starting narrow in half and half positions to prevent play centrally, and O’Nien would go man-man against McGrandles to again prevent play through the middle.

Upon forcing the pass wide, our wing-backs would jump up to force the long ball.

Due to this high press, from goal kicks especially Lincoln often opted to go long instead of trying to play out.

Roberts forces play wide, Clarke jumps up, O’Nien prevents pass inside and Cirkin aggressive against his man (as discussed in section above)

When we were a bit deeper in our defensive shape, the ideas on where to force the ball was the same.

We would firstly look to funnel the play out to the wide areas, which would act as the trigger for aggressive pressure and where we would look to turn the ball over.

Again Lincoln created very little from their periods in possession which was a testament to our organisation off the ball.

Roberts arcs run to force play wide and then really tight to our men when the wing-back looks to play back inside.

Here, we prevent any forward passes centrally by keeping ourselves narrow and going aggressively man-man in the middle. We squeeze out of our defensive shape into a higher press and eventually force the long pass.

Our reaction to turnover situations was also excellent throughout, aggressively looking to press the options close to the ball carrier and win it back as quickly as possible. This again was important in pinning Lincoln into their half:

Where we did show some weaknesses however was the spaces in behind our wing-backs. Lincoln’s two biggest outlets were Brammell on the left and Norton-Cuffy on the right, and on a few occasions they exploited the space behind our advanced wing-backs on the counter-attack.

Also, Clarke’s body position in a few instances was poor and was unaware of his man on the far side, with his lack of experience in this position probably showing.


On the whole, as a complete performance this was probably our best under Neil so far.

Our right side looked excellent, we constantly overloaded Lincoln in the middle with driving runs from Winchester and Cirkin, and off the ball we were aggressive and limited them to very little.

At this stage of the season obviously, it is the results that are the most important thing, however, it’s difficult to not be encouraged by our performances under Neil and his understanding of not only the balance of the side, but also the system he has put in place that seemingly suits a lot of our players.


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