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Sunderland v Gillingham - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Tactics: Attacking setup finally pays off against Gillingham

Roker Report’s resident tactics expert Coel Young puts Saturday’s last-gasp win under the microscope.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Lineups and shape

In possession approach

Once again it was a match where we faced a 5-3-2 defensive setup, albeit Gillingham’s was a lot less man-marking and significantly deeper than Lincoln’s two weeks ago (discussed further in the below sections). As is usually the case against a 5-3-2, the space is in the wider areas outside of the midfield three. When we were building play therefore, this often meant that our fullbacks, Winchester and Cirkin, were our free men, and both generally took up conservative positions to ensure we could easily progress the ball through them. Winchester and Cirkin had 85 and 96 touches respectively (top two highest amounts), showing how they were our out-ball against Gillingham’s setup.

Ahead of the ball in the first half, we used a system that was heavily focused on our right hand side. Although on paper we were playing with a 4-2-3-1, O’Nien pushed right onto Gillingham’s last line and often rotated with Roberts, ending up in a RW position at times with Roberts inside (almost like a 4-3-3 in possession). Pritchard drifted over to this side in the first half to give us extra numbers also, while Winchester also made late runs from fullback when we were in the final third.

O’Nien’s touchmap shows his advanced positioning.

We did have a few positive moments down our right, especially when we were able to combine quickly or draw out one of the Gillingham back five.

Roberts was also effective due to his ability to dribble infield with speed, in particular when we were able to open space inside the pitch. Again the potential effectiveness of our rotations can be seen in the below clips:

O’Nien interchanges with Roberts, Pritchard opens the space inside with run behind and is almost found by Roberts.
This time Winchester makes the supporting run to open up the space inside for Roberts, and O’Nien makes a good run behind the defensive line however is forced backwards.

On the left, Clarke often hugged the touchline with Cirkin initially positioned inside to help us switch the ball (before creating a 2v1 when Clarke received), however we had fewer numbers on this side of the pitch, and would instead look to load the box for any eventual cross.

Overall, our shape was very fluid with lots of rotations and attempts to disrupt the Gillingham backline. And, as Alex Neil mentioned in his post-match interview, it was a more attacking setup than previous games as we only left Evans, Wright and Batth behind the ball (in contrast to usually four).

Lots of rotation and attempted combinations but Gillingham make it incredibly difficult.

Gillingham defensive organisation

One of the main reasons we failed to create many clear cut chances throughout the match, however, was due to Gillingham’s excellent defensive setup. Neil Harris’ side had no interest in getting pressure on the ball until they were in their own third, setting up their defensive line around their 18-yard box and making it incredibly congested centrally by going aggressively man-man at the back and working in units out wide.

Example of typical situation on our right first half.

By reducing the space between their lines, Gillingham were happy to let our full-backs have possession and letting us use the wider areas. Despite us looking to overload the wide areas (on our right especially), Gillingham worked brilliantly in small units to double up and prevent this combination play or progressions centrally from the wings.

Gils’ left wing-back, left centre-back and supporting No.8 in constant support of each other out wide
Here they again get good cover, force the pass down the line with the wing-back jumping up and trap Roberts against the touchline.

To make our combination attempts even more difficult, passes into central areas were quickly shut down...

Congest central area and then make following passes out wide difficult.
Very aggressive again and front-foot defending from the backline when we try to play inside from wide again.

...and their entire backline defending aggressively man-man once we entered their third, quickly re-organising themselves whenever we looked to rotate and combine.

Gillingham quick to pass on men and quickly close down any passes between the lines.

Similarly, Gillingham’s wingbacks jumped out aggressively when either Roberts or Clarke dropped to receive, applying heavy pressure on their first touch and following them closely if they drifted infield (and forcing them into areas where they had greater numbers).

Right up until the end of the match, Gillingham also encouraged us to play crosses into the box as long as they were from deeper positions following a forced pass backwards (from their good work in small units out wide). Despite us looking to load the box with lots of numbers, the quality of our delivery on the whole was not good and allowed Gillingham to comfortably clear on most occasions (33 clearances in the match, nearly all of which inside their own area).

Gillingham also defended our switches of play out to our left brilliantly, quickly shifting over to prevent any 2v1 situations with Cirkin and Clarke.

Finally, Gillingham defended well in the countless 1v1 situations Tutonda and Jackson found themselves in against Roberts and Clarke, rarely getting beaten despite often being driven onto the back foot around their own box.

Second half moments of success

As mentioned, we did not create too many clear cut chances throughout the match, however when we did it often involved exploiting the aggressive man-marking from Gils at the back and the spaces they left.

In this first example, the rotations down our right exploit the Gils’ man-to-man approach at the back. Roberts drops to pull forward their wing-back, and Winchester makes an underlapping run inside to free up Pritchard, who’s drifted over to that side to deliver.

The change from Neil also helped in this regard, as Gooch became our highest and widest man on the right which allowed Roberts to come inside more often.

Roberts is very good under pressure and was therefore effective in drawing out his man whilst being able to retain possession, and in this example manages to slide in Broadhead down the side of their centre-back after receiving in a tight area.

Gillingham’s man-marking could also be exploited on the very rare transitions situations we got (usually from their throw-ins), and here Broadhead uses a clever first time flick around corner after dragging his defender out before quickly spinning into space.

One disappointing aspect of the performance was how little we involved Stewart in our build-up play, as when he dropped deep or made a run into the channel it was effective in dragging their middle centre-back out of position. Here, for example, we exploit their man-marking by pulling their left centre-back and wing-back out, opening the space for Stewart to make a run into the channel and eventually getting himself in a good position:

Finally, as aforementioned, Gillingham were happy to let us play backwards and cross from deeper positions, however there were a couple of occasions they did this with no pressure on the ball. The first warning was O’Nien’s header coming off the crossbar, and the second was the winning goal in the final minute from Broadhead.


The game was made a difficult watch due to Gillingham’s extremely well organised setup, which made it incredibly difficult for us to find any space in and around their penalty area and create clear cut chances. However, Alex Neil was definitely attacking in his approach and his substitutes worked well, with Embleton giving us the potential for in-swingers from his positioning inside on the right following his introduction.

One notable aspect of our home performances, particularly in relation to our late goals, is how well we are able to pin teams in and sustain wave after wave of attack. Even if it is not necessarily resulting in lots of chances, it is tiring for the opposition both physically and mentally, and could have been a factor in our late winners against Crewe, Fleetwood and now Gillingham on Saturday.


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