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Plymouth Argyle v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Tactics: Breaking down our controlled performance against Plymouth

Sunderland came away from Home Park with a clean sheet and a point, which is more than most have taken recently - and here to break down our controlled performance is RR’s resident analyst Coel Young...

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Lineups and shape

Plymouth: 5-3-2. Sunderland: 3-4-3.

Early possession and game-plan

We settled really well into the game for the opening 15 minutes. When building up, as usual under Alex Neil, we looked to avoid risky passes into central areas, patiently playing around our back three before looking for a forward pass. If we did look to play through our midfield, then Matete and Evans would look to drift wide outside of Plymouth midfield trio:

Matete moves into the space outside of Plymouth’s midfield three to receive.

It was evident that our game-plan involved looking to get down the sides of Plymouth’s back three which struggle against mobility and fast runners into space, as was the case in the reverse fixture earlier in the season. When we had possession, Broadhead would look to drop towards the ball to drag Wilson out of his slot, whilst Stewart would look to lurk on the last line for the space this left behind.

This resulted in some promising situations when Broadhead was able to drag Wilson out of position:

Broadhead pulls Wilson out of the backline and Stewart spins behind, however Embleton’s ball is slightly too long.
Camará steps out to Cirkin, Broadhead drops and spins Wilson. Stewart looks to pull into the space.

It was also one of our more common routes of progression, playing into Broadhead who would look to bounce the ball back into one of our forward facing players, or turn and play out to the left:

Broadhead drops to bounce into Matete. Notice Stewart playing on the shoulder as mentioned.
Broadhead finding another pocket of space behind the Plymouth midfield. Stewart again on the shoulder in case one of the centre-backs is drawn out.

When we turned the ball over we would also look to quickly hit Plymouth on the break, with big spaces in the channels and behind their defensive line for us to exploit:

Plymouth backline isolated on transition.

Defensive issues

After this initial spell however, Plymouth regained some control of the match and started to cause us issues defensively. The first problem was that Plymouth were easily able to bypass our front-three, either through pushing on of their centre-backs on, Mayor dropping deep to receive...

...or by playing into Houghton who wasn’t being screened at times:

Houghton free behind the front three of our 3-4-3 shape.

This meant that our double pivot of Evans and Matete had to shuffle across to the wide areas to cover, which started to open up passes centrally:

Mayor able to move forward after dropping wide, Evans covers across and big spaces between our midfield. On this occasion Plymouth neglect their usual pass into the dropping Ennis.
Matete dragged across, Ennis drops into the pocket to receive, and Mayor the free man on the left now the midfield has been pulled across.

Another issue was when our wing-back had to jump up to apply pressure and one of Matete/Evans had to track the runner into the channel. This left big gaps around the penalty area for cutbacks or late runners from midfield:

Evans being pulled into the wide area to cover opens up big spaces in front of our defensive line.
This situation ends in a massive chance for Ennis: Matete caught too high after tracking the run, Evans occupied by Kamara on the other side and no protection in-front of our defence.

Also, some poor decisions in possession resulted in dangerous turnover situations, with Plymouth constantly looking to get into the channel behind O’Nien down our left:

Big spaces behind O’Nien: Evans again has to cover and space for late runner as mentioned above.

To address some of the issues out-of-possession, Neil altered our shape from a 3-4-3 to a 3-4-1-2, dropping Embleton in on Houghton and matching them up in midfield. Overall however, our pressing and organisation off the ball were generally good (especially after dropping Embleton in on Houghton), and barring the few situations above where our midfield were dragged over, we forced Plymouth into lots of long balls.

Cutting the pitch in half well, O’Nien jumps up and forces a ball down the channel.

Regain control second half

We were quickly able to assert control of the game from the start of the second half, and a key part of this was Cirkin who helped us overload them in the midfield area. Cirkin’s positioning created a 2v1 against Camará (later Randell) and massively helped us in sustaining possession higher up the pitch:

Cirkin driving forward with the ball creates the extra man against Plymouth’s midfield who are trying to protect the centre.
Randell attracted to Matete’s forward run with the ball, however Cirkin’s positioning creates the 2v1 centrally.

Cirkin also made some aggressive runs both on and off the ball, looking to make underlapping runs whenever our wide man had the ball on the left and their wing-back was dragged out:

Cirkin making a run into the space behind their wing-back.

As the half progressed, Plymouth started to tire and the spaces that weren’t there previously in the centre started to open up, giving Embleton especially some pockets to drop in and receive:

Broadhead dropping towards the ball also continued to have a good effect and on a few occasions exploited the bigger spaces centrally, here dropping in-front of the Plymouth defence, pulling out Gillesphey whilst Embleton spins into the channel behind:

Out of possession we were also excellent, denying passes into Houghton with Embleton’s screening, applying good pressure to their side centre-backs when the retrieved in wider areas and using triggers out wide to force turnovers:

Here Stewart drops in on Houghton to prevent central play, as soon as the pass wide is played we press aggressively and force turnover.

Plymouth are a side who like to play through central areas with Niall Ennis often dropping in as a #10 and lay the ball off into supporting midfielders...

Typical Plymouth pattern throughout the season.

...however we massively restricted this in the second half, as shown by Plymouth’s passes in the final third:

A lack of progressive passes centrally, with a lot down the wide areas (especially the right).

Unfortunately our later changes did not have the desired effect. Roberts struggled to pick the ball up in central areas, Neil and Gooch were sloppy in possession and Clarke continued to be poor. Our lack of quality resulted in us losing our control of the game slightly in the final 10 minutes, and allowed Plymouth some dangerous situations when they were able to get down the sides on the counter and deliver into the box.


Considering Plymouth’s excellent home record, and the importance of the match, I thought we managed the game really well. Apart from some defensive issues in the first half, a lot of which came from our own errors in possession, we were organised off the ball and stopped Plymouth’s typical patterns, largely dominated possession in the second half with Cirkin stepping in, and were positive with our substitutions with 15 minutes to go (who unfortunately did not have the desired effect).

It gives you more confidence that if we do make the playoffs, we have a manager who knows how to manage these type of games, plus we always carry a massive threat on the counter attack.

We could also definitely have done with Pritchard in the match, who would have been vital in picking the ball up in tight spaces, drawing out the Plymouth centre-backs and opening up the spaces in behind for Stewart and Broadhead to exploit.


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