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Sunderland v Rotherham - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Tactics: Sunderland v Rotherham - Was Alex Neil’s conservative approach right?

“The Lads scored another late equaliser as they battled back to a 1-1 draw at the SoL on Tuesday, but had Alex Neil changed tact earlier, we could've come away with all three,” says James Nickels.

Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Alex Neil set the Lads up in his now-preferred 3-4-1-2 formation, but made three changes to personnel and shifted a few around as the injured Carl Winchester made way for Callum Doyle. Trai Hume also started in place of Patrick Roberts with Lynden Gooch shifting to LWB, while Jay Matete replaced Elliot Embleton in a highly-controversial switch.

Neil plays this way to ensure dominance in terms of both territory and possession. When the opposition lines up with a back-four, overloads on the wings outnumber their defence, while his proclivity to utilise a rather old-school W-M style formation in which the side is split into five defenders and five attackers allow for both an effective press and counter-press in tandem. Even in situations facing a similar back three/five, we are never outnumbered in the opposition half or centre of the pitch - in theory. Against Rotherham, this was not the case.

Matete received an early yellow card (which could be deemed quite harsh considering it was his first foul - yet it took six for opposition midfielder Oliver Rathbone to receive a subsequent caution). This effectively nullified his impact off-the-ball almost from the off. In addition, with the withdrawal of all creativity from midfield (Embleton, Alex Pritchard and Patrick Roberts sat on the bench), our midfield suddenly looked somewhat “industrious”.

This is a pundit’s cliched term for a general lacking of quality on the ball. Neil, after the game, admitted that this was because this was one of attrition and required a more combative and defensive trio in midfield - as Luke O’Nien played in attacking midfield spearheading a pivot of Matete & Corry Evans.

This is to directly try and limit the effectiveness of Rotherham’s own midfield trio of Barlaser, Wiles & Rathbone - arguably the best in the division. Most teams mark man-for-man in the press and are thus lenient in midfield. The deepest midfielder, in particular, is generally given license to play more zonally in front of the backline. However, Warne wants his central midfielders to be persevering and to follow their men around during this defensive phase, even into deep areas of the pitch which can be dangerous. Barlaser spends a large amount of time off the ball in the opposing half - something quite unique in League One.

Portsmouth overcame this in their recent 3-0 win by playing aggressively and direct. Their central defenders and midfield all stepped up to push Rotherham back and played over the top. We tried to do the same but simply are not as effective at playing direct from deep-lying situations, and nor do we particularly dominate in the middle of the pitch by creating overloads in the central third. Off the ball, on far too many occasions, we allowed Rotherham total freedom to overload this area and move into spaces between the central trio, as below:

This happened on all but two of Rotherham’s attempts from open play. But this shot from Wiles is the most egregious:

Rotherham were able to press our backline very effectively and we offered little resistance. We attempted to go long and exploit Rotherham, but the midfield sat far too deep and neither Stewart nor Broadhead are as effective back to goal. Against Cambridge, one main threat was the long ball wide or in-behind their high line but this was allowed by their lack of pressure on the ball and narrow play. Rotherham’s width stopped us from going wide and their pressing forced us to play it quickly or to withdraw down the pitch and surrender territory in order to keep possession - thus we had 61% of the ball yet only 29% of the play took place in their half.

Neil withdrew his wing-backs somewhat from the Cambridge game (as you would expect) but still, their average positions are quite high. This could lead to giving away a number of opportunities on the transition - and it did. Rotherham was only more effective at creating goalscoring opportunities from set-pieces than they were on the transition. Neil protected against this with a disciplined 3 & 2 defence, with Doyle and Wright narrow and both defensive midfielders tasked with sitting deep at all opportunities (note how defensive the back five are below).


As a result, the midfield was stagnant in possession and lacked creativity. This changed when Pritchard and Embleton were introduced as we started to see positional overloads behind Barlaser and across the RW-RCM gate in particular. Luke O’Nien was very good at creating these after moving up top alongside Stewart after Broadhead was taken off - even before then the best move of the first half when he played Stewart in with a back heel came through this area of the pitch.

Neil sacrificed attacking intent to keep it solid at the back, and if not for one poor man-marking sequence from a corner we would’ve kept a clean sheet - but did not. Yet it is also worrying that we created very little and had zero shots on target - the own goal truly bailed us out in this aspect. When we went a goal down, or at least at half-time, Neil should have changed things up. But that is easy to say in hindsight. What we did know, however, is that Rotherham have dropped more points from leading positions in their last 6 games than they did in the entire season before this. Their players tire late in games, and potentially had these changes been made earlier, we could’ve just grabbed that extra goal.

Overall, I can see why he favoured a more conservative approach with a focus on long balls in behind - but this tactic both played into Rotherham’s hands and did not exploit our own strengths. That midfield trio were too deep to be aggressive enough to make the long ball work, the strikers are plain bad back to goal and Rotherham’s bread and butter is defending aerial challenges - they're the best in the league at doing so. Warne’s game plan was almost perfect, and it would’ve come off to aplomb if not for a wonderfully comical 90th-minute own goal.

This one final stat shows how damning the long ball game was - of all 28 attempted long balls from defenders, only 9% were completed.

Long balls into the final third by Sunderland’s back-five - only 3 were completed.

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