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Oxford United v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Tactics: What went wrong in the first half against Oxford, and how did Alex Neil fix it?

Alex Neil held up his hands and said he got it wrong in the first half on Saturday - so what exactly did he do, and how did it work? Coel Young delves deep to analyse Sunderland’s performance...

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Lineups and Shape

Missing out the midfield

As Alex Neil spoke about in his post-match interview, throughout the first half we lacked control of the game both on and off the ball, partially due to the shape and personnel Neil selected. One of the main reasons for this lack of control was our inability to play through midfield, which was in part down to Oxford’s defensive organisation and press, and in part due to our direct approach.

In terms of Oxford’s defensive organisation, their 4-3-3 shape off the ball was perfectly suited to press our build-up and specifically our midfield two. Both Brannagan and Bodin stepped right onto Evans and Matete in our double pivot, making it incredibly difficult to play through midfield and into the final third:

Oxford preventing passes into Matete and Evans and forcing turnover when we try and play through.
Brannagan working hard to screen pass into Evans, forcing the long ball.

Another reason for why our personnel were perhaps not suited to the game plan was due to our direct approach in possession, despite it creating some very promising moments throughout the first half. However, the fact we played more directly meant we didn’t really progress the ball through midfield or between their lines, which was not suited to Roberts who has been vital in this regard in recent weeks.

Instead, a lot of our play meant picking up loose second balls from our direct play was more important, making Roberts’ role in the lineup and system was quite redundant.

Also, when we did look to play through midfield and into Roberts, our execution and quality was massively off.

These direct balls into our forwards however were effective in isolating their back line however as mentioned, especially with Oxford pushing their fullbacks on aggressively in possession.

Broadhead’s early chance came from Stewart making a run into the right channel behind their fullback on the turnover:

And again here we find Stewart back to goal early and have Broadhead looking to exploit the space behind:

Open on transition

Although we once again looked solid off the ball when we had time to recover into our 5-2-1-2 shape, it was the moments when the ball was lost when we looked most vulnerable against Oxford, with our wing-backs caught high and our back three isolated against Holland and Sykes who made forward runs into the gaps:

Oxford continually looked to use the left-to-right switch throughout the first half often through Brannagan, resulting in a number of dangerous moments where Clarke’s lack of experience in this position was on display and he was frequently caught on his inside shoulder or too high.

Here Matete does an excellent job in tracking the runner when Clarke again switches off. Both he and Evans did this excellently all match.

System change

Due to the aforementioned issues in possession, in the second half Alex Neil changed our shape in possession to a 4-3-3, which saw a massive improvement in our control of the game.

Corry Evans’ position at the base of the midfield three in this new system meant one of Oxford’s midfielder’s now had to step out to him, committing more players to their press and had a massive effect in stretching them out of possession.

There were countless examples in the second half of us being able to play through Oxford’s shape down our right due to the difficulties they now had in trying to press us, and the spaces that began to open up behind and around their midfield line.

Midfield triangle.
Typical pattern we used to progress: Oxford wingers try to show centre-backs inside, midfielders man-mark and our full-backs make run off shoulder.

Here, Brannagan steps out to Winchester, meaning O’Nien is free to drop in and receive with Oxford’s defensive midfielder Herbie Kane deep in his own half and Bodin occupied with Matete.

As the pass is played inside Gooch makes a run off the shoulder of his winger, and he can advance into the Oxford half.

This was constantly a route of progression for us throughout.

This time Kane has to step out to press Evans, leaving his slot in front of their defence.

O’Nien draws in Brannagan, quickly scans over his shoulder to see Stewart has dropped in, and Stewart is free to receive in the space where Kane has been pulled out from.

Their centre-back Moore now has to step out and Broadhead is almost in behind.

Again, their #8 Bodin has stepped high onto Evans and the other steps forward towards Wright who comes forward with the ball.

Behind them however, Kane is now overloaded with Matete and O’Nien either side, allowing for us to easily play through them once again.

Matete and O’Nien overloading Kane when the Oxford midfield step out to press (ultimately how the winner was scored).

When we were in their final third, O’Nien’s advanced positioning was effective in disorganising Oxford defensively.

Here O’Nien starts high and receives, pulling Moore miles out of his slot and opening up a big hole in the Oxford defence to exploit.

Our touch map in the first half (top) in contrast to the second (bottom) shows how much more effective we were at progressing the ball, especially down our right hand side.

Defensively we were also improved on the first half, switching to a 4-5-1 out of possession with man-marking in the midfield area (making it look more like a 4-2-3-1 with O’Nien following Kane at the base of their midfield) and were also caught less on transition due to our improvements in possession.

We cut the pitch off effectively after the initial pass out wide and often forced Oxford into a longer ball towards Taylor.

However, this defensive change did not completely address our issues down our left and we still looked massively vulnerable...

Cirkin defends a lot better 1v1 here.

... especially against Brannagan’s long diagonals where neither Cirkin or Clarke got any pressure on the ball out wide.

Winning goal

Embleton’s winner summed up the effectiveness of our system change in this second half. Matete positions himself off the shoulder of Bodin, receiving on the half turn and driving forward into space.

O’Nien rotates into the centre-forward position, does brilliantly to receive back-to-goal and layoff to Stewart, where we have an overload on the far-post with Embleton.

In terms of why we had an overload far-side, right at the start of the move you can again see how our midfield shape meant Brannagan doesn’t give cover on the far side and instead steps forward to cover Evans.

Oxford’s winger on the left switches off, meaning at the end of the move the left-back Brown is overloaded on the far side against Embleton and Stewart.


Once again it was fantastic to see how Alex Neil is quick to adapt his tactics when he sees an approach isn’t working. Here, he saw we couldn’t get any settled possession or gain a foothold in midfield, took Roberts off for O’Nien and switched to a 4-3-3, massively improving our control of the match by having an extra man in that area. Having both Matete and O’Nien in these advanced #8 positions ultimately won us the match.

Defensively there were some concerns, especially down our left where Clarke is relatively poor defensively, often switching off and getting his positioning wrong against switches of play.

Although O’Nien was excellent after his introduction at half time by mainly making sensible decisions in possession, it was Jay Matete who was our outstanding player throughout the match. Matete can dribble through pressure by using his body brilliantly to shield off opponents and turn, and is even better defensively, providing constant support to his full-back/wing-back by doubling up.

Our winner showed how effective he can be in advanced areas as well, moving off the shoulder of his man to receive back foot and drive at the Oxford defence. He will be vital in our clashes against Rotherham and Plymouth especially where we will have less possession and need both physicality and ability under pressure.


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