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Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg

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Talking Tactics: High press and low risk in possession - how Alex Neil guided us to the final

RR’s resident analyst Coel Young breaks down how Alex Neil navigated Sunderland to the playoff final with a fine away performance at Hillsborough on Monday...

Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

Lineups and shape

Aggressive press and early issues

Despite the massive physical effort of Friday night, Alex Neil again decided to press Sheffield Wednesday’s backline and attempts to build-up, supported by close man-marking in the midfield area.

Stewart, Clarke and Roberts pushed directly onto their back-three with the intention of forcing the long ball, whilst Gooch and Cirkin would jump out to their wing-backs if they were able to receive wide.

Man-man press high up.

If we were able to force the long ball, then our midfield would look to be goal side of their respective man so they would be able to pick up any second ball, and Wright and Batth had no issue following their man closely infield to prevent them from turning.

Wright preventing Windass from getting turned, midfielders ready for second balls.

This decision to press aggressively did cause us some issues in the opening half however, especially when our wing-backs had to jump higher to support the press.

Gooch having to jump high to support the press.

One of Sheffield Wednesday’s most common patterns of play is finding their centre-forward with a more direct pass and getting a runner from midfield in behind.

They exploited us with this pattern on a couple of occasions, with both Batth and Wright left massively exposed:

Gooch dragged high in press, Gregory wins first ball and Luongo runs off Pritchard into the channel.

Albeit Josh Windass dropping deep centrally didn’t cause us as many issues as it did in the first leg, when he did drop deep in the wide areas, especially the left channel, it opened up big gaps in our defence where Wednesday looked to use their patterns of play:

Again Wright dragged massively out of position by our pressing shape and Windass drifting wide, fortunately Wednesday have no runner behind to exploit the space.
Similar again, Wright can’t follow closely due to the run from Byer’s in behind. Gooch bottom right taken out of the game just prior.

Once again, however, Batth and Wright were superb in their duels when Windass or Gregory looked to pin them back-to-goal and won a majority of the first balls.

Wright and Batth aerial duels won (courtesy of

The switch of play was another avenue Wednesday exploited in the first half, as Clarke on a few occasions failed to follow the runs of Hunt on the right, leaving Cirkin overloaded in the back post area (second image) or in a 1v1 with Hunt out wide (first).

Bannan the wide man in this situation.

Risk averse possession

As expected, in possession we took very few risks, especially when building play. We often looked to play directly into Stewart from defence or towards the wider areas, particularly the spaces behind Wednesday’s wing-backs.

This plan made the game really scrappy and we had varied success in picking up the second balls from these longer passes, despite the three behind Stewart looking coming narrow when the longer pass was played:

Because they were chasing the game, and because in the first leg our full-backs were so often our free man, Wednesday committed their wing-backs to their press and ran the risk of leaving their centre-backs exposed in the channels:

On the rare occasions we were able to win the first ball, therefore, or play into the channel behind their wing-backs, we created a number of dangerous 1v1 situations:

Hunt (circled) committed to the press moments before free-kick, O’Nien takes quickly to find Clarke behind Storey).
Hunt (circled) commits to press, Stewart wins first ball and Clarke 1v1 vs Dean.

When we were able to sustain possession higher up the pitch, again we always ensured we were secure behind the ball. Evans and O’Nien almost always sat behind the ball, and generally Cirkin tucked inside from his left-back position.

This created a band of three in case of turnover and gave good protection to Batth and Wright:

Cirkin tucked in far side, O’Nien behind the ball and Gooch comes narrow to cover for Evans who has advanced.
Band of three again: Gooch high and wide so Evans drops in to cover, O’Nien central and Cirkin tucking in.

Ahead of them, Roberts and Clarke typically stayed wide, Gooch would push forward on the right and Pritchard was given freedom to roam and combine:

Throughout the match, this narrow positioning of Cirkin in possession also gave us an easy option outside of Wednesday’s shape, and that was similar to the first leg - helping us recycle the ball across our backline and out to the other side.

Second half

The second half followed a similar pattern to the first in that no side was able to really threaten with the possession they had.

We again we restricted to the wide areas when we were able to sustain possession, and were generally reliant on Clarke, Roberts or Cirkin winning 1v1 duels and providing a moment of quality.

Off the ball we continued to be aggressive in our pressing with the intention of preventing Wednesday from pinning us in.

In the midfield we man-marked, and Batth and Wright supported our pressure by aggressively stepping out to any dropping movements from their forwards:

Man-marking in midfield and Batth following Gregory closely to prevent turn.
Aggressive pressing continuing into the second half.

However, a significant change was down our right, which was the main point of weakness in the first half. Whether it was by instruction or because Bannan was over on this side, O’Nien was almost entirely positioned on this side in the second half.

He was excellent in tracking any runners into the channel, preventing similar situations to the first where one of our centre-backs got dragged wide:

O’Nien tracking Luongo’s run when Gooch moves higher to press; our centre-backs can stay central and narrow.

Threat from wide

As the half progressed however, Wednesday’s threat from wide gradually grew, especially as Clarke and Roberts started to tire. Wednesday pushed their wing-backs on aggressively whilst chasing the game, and both Roberts and Clarke were often caught narrow, often giving time and space for Hunt and Johnson to deliver into the box (which Wright and Batth again dealt with well).

Wednesday’s opener came from a situation where Roberts switched off on a couple of occasions, firstly from the initial free-kick to leave Johnson free to receive...

...and then when Bannan had the ball on the edge of our box, managing to trick Roberts into stepping up before threading a ball on his inside shoulder into Johnson, where in the six-yard box Gregory had started his movement across the front post early.

Space to exploit

However, as the half progressed it was also clear the spaces down the sides of Wednesday’s back three were still there to exploit due to how aggressively their wing-backs pushed forwards, especially down their right.

This got worse following the introduction of Mendez-Laing, who Darren Moore must be absolutely furious with considering his complete lack of interest in tracking back on countless occasions:

Here Clarke plays infield to Pritchard who draws Storey out, Stewart plays into the space and Clarke completely runs off Mendez-Laing.
Again Mendez-Laing shows no interest in following Pritchard, leaving Storey 1v1.

We were quite unlucky not to get in shortly after their goal with Clarke’s run onto Stewart’s flick-on:

However, after Mendez-Laing once again switched off defensively and Wednesday failed to get any pressure on the ball, we again found Clarke in a 1v1 with Storey and managed to punish Wednesday in the dying moments.


Considering how much of a force Sheffield Wednesday have been since the turn of the year, restricting them to so few chances over two legs is massively impressive.

Despite the issues with our press in the second leg and in the wide areas, we were aggressive throughout both ties with our pressure, preventing Wednesday from progressing centrally and also from getting pinned in for any sustained periods. When we did have to defend deep, we defended the box brilliantly, with Wright and Batth so comfortable at dealing with crosses into the box.

Our direct approach was sensible as it made the game scrappy and prevented any unforced errors in our own third, and also enabled us to exploit the spaces down the sides of their back-three, which ultimately won us the game.

Alex Neil also deserves immense credit for not panicking and making any substitutions. It wouldn’t surprise me if he recognised the spaces that Wednesday were starting to leave down the sides, especially down their right, and thought Clarke and Roberts were the best players we had to exploit that.


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