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Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Tactics: Flexible front three show positive signs in Charlton draw

It may have ultimately been two points dropped, but Saturday’s display showed some signs of progression under Alex Neil.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Lineups and Shape

In possession and the front three

Once again, we used a different shape for this match compared to previous weeks. While 4-3-3 was used in Alex Neil’s opening matches, 3-5-2 at home to Burton and 4-2-3-1 away to Wigan, against Charlton we used a 3-4-3 shape which again differed slightly in possession to the systems used in previous matches.

One noticeable change was how much freedom the front three of Stewart, Broadhead and Pritchard were given in attack, not fixed to positions or sides and roaming across the width of the pitch. Broadhead and Pritchard particular looked to drop to receive the ball between the lines while Stewart played on Charlton’s last line. Behind them, Matete and Evans stayed central as a midfield two, Cirkin and Gooch provided width from wing-back, while Winchester looked to drive forward from his centre-back position on the right of the back three.

The below touch maps from Whoscored show the positional freedom Broadhead (top) and Pritchard (bottom) were given:

Nathan Broadhead’s touch map
Alex Pritchard’s touch map

Charlton went man to man in the middle as League One sides often do, with Lee and Fraser pushing up onto Matete and Evans when we were building up. This is where the roles of Broadhead and Pritchard massively helped us, as Dobson couldn’t pick up both at once when they dropped to receive in-between the lines. This gave us some good moments when building play.

Dobson (4) struggles to pick up both Pritchard and Broadhead either side when they dropped in.
Pritchard and Broadhead drop to receive either side at start of the move.

Here, we draw in the Charlton press by playing into midfield, and an excellent first-time pass from Evans into Pritchard drags out the Charlton centre-back, drawing a foul in the process.

Dobson (bottom right) given too much ground to cover centrally and can’t screen the pass- centre-back has to step out.

This time Broadhead drops to receive on the right (Evans moves higher), they both then rotate again, which pulls the Charlton centre-back of out of his slot, creating space for Broadhead to spin behind.

Dobson again struggles to firstly screen the pass and then track the run behind.

The benefit of Broadhead in this role is again shown in the below clip, as he drops and receives but then immediately looks to run in behind:

Centre-back has to step out due to space in-front of defensive line.

We could have perhaps been a bit more aggressive in playing through the lines at times, and our execution of these passes was also sometimes off (as below), where Pritchard is free to receive following the Charlton midfield being drawn out:

Another positive of the freedom the front three were given was that they could position themselves close together to combine quickly in tight spaces.

This move summed up a lot of positive aspects of our play, starting with Pritchard and Broadhead drifting over to the far side, quickly shifting the ball across the pitch through our midfield two, Winchester making a run from his centre-back slot and good presence in the box for the resulting cross:

Leaving the front three ahead of the ball (covered more below) also helped when looking to pick up second balls from more direct play or on turnover situations, as it allowed us to quickly counter with Pritchard in the pocket behind Broadhead and Stewart, who looked to peel into the channels.

Overall, the balance of the front three looked good. Pritchard and Broadhead (Pritchard especially) are comfortable dropping in to receive the ball, Broadhead’s pace is a massive threat in behind, while Stewart offers a focal point and is also excellent at running the channels.

Hopefully, Pritchard’s injury isn’t too serious and those three have a run of games together, as the signs were positive throughout.

However, considering Charlton defended in a 5-3-2, our shape in possession played into their hands by allowing them to essentially reduce the game to a number of 1v1 battles. They also made it difficult to get in behind their defensive line and congested the play centrally, which meant it was difficult to combine between their lines despite the freedom Pritchard and Broadhead were given.

Second half changes

In the final 15 minutes, Alex Neil introduced Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke and changed the shape to a 4-2-3-1. Charlton’s defensive line was a bit higher during this period of the match, and our changes resulted in some good counter-attacking opportunities and gave us more of a 1v1 threat out wide. Clarke in particular is an excellent carrier of the ball and benefited from the increased space he had in front of him, with a few dangerous moments where he was isolated 1v1 against Lavelle. We had some success was from playing directly into Stewart, using lay-offs to quickly progress the ball and attack the Charlton backline with our front four.

Out of possession

Although we largely dominated possession throughout, I thought we were impressive off the ball. Our pressing and shape were organised, generally funnelling passes into wide areas before aggressively closing down and trying to force turnovers when Charlton’s wide men received and looked to play back inside.

Front three force the ball wide, Gooch jumps up to their wing-back, Matete prevents the pass inside and Winchester tight against the touchline.
Again Stewart forces the pass wide, Cirkin jumps up and Evans forces the turnover centrally.

Matete and Evans also covered the width of the pitch well considering the front three were left higher up for the counter-attack in our 5-2-1-2 shape (out of possession). They plugged gaps in the defence effectively and constantly doubled up with our wingbacks out in the wide areas.

Evans supports Cirkin, allowing the back three to focus on defending the penalty area and not get dragged wide in the event Cirkin is beaten.
Evans drops into the defensive line to provide cover to Winchester and Matete when they are beaten out wide.

Also, our reaction on turnovers of possession was very aggressive, with our backline also stepping out well at times to prevent Charlton from winning the first ball.


Despite the result, there were a number of positive aspects to the performance. The trio of Pritchard, Broadhead and Stewart looked promising, albeit Pritchard – typically – seems likely to be out injured for a while. I think the back three shape lacked flexibility against Burton, however, Neil seemingly addressed this by giving lots of freedom to our attackers whilst also giving us good cover behind the ball in case of a loss of possession.

Although we didn’t create much from open play due, we probably did enough to win the game and looked particularly dangerous when we were given space to exploit on the counter-attack.

Out of possession, both this week and last week against Wigan, it is hard to think of any instances where our central defenders have been left isolated in 1v1 situations or dragged out of position, which is a stark contrast to under Lee Johnson where they were left to defend massive spaces on counter-attacks especially, and were often dragged towards the wider areas (meaning they couldn’t defend any crosses into the box).

In the last two matches, however, both Wright and Xhemajli have rarely been exposed which is testament to the improvements we have made in terms of the defensive structure under Alex Neil.


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