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Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium

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Talking Tactics: How did Sunderland win the playoff final? A full breakdown

RR’s resident analyst Coel Young dissects Sunderland’s performance from Saturday - just how did Alex Neil mastermind a win for The Lads on the big stage?

Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

Lineups and Shape (Wycombe: 4-3-3, Sunderland 4-2-3-1)

How did we do it?

Dismantling Wycombe’s man-marking

  • Narrow wingers to draw out the full-backs
  • Stewart dropping and runners from midfield
  • Roberts’ diagonal runs
  • Embleton and Pritchard freedom and rotation

Dealing with Wycombe’s main threats

  • Embleton drops back and Roberts nullifies Jacobson
  • Midfield two double up
  • Pritchard’s pressing job
  • Issues

Ainsworth’s aggressive changes leave them open

  • Hanlon and Akinfenwa subs lead to change of shape
  • Big spaces in the middle and down the sides of Wycombe
  • Back five to see it out

Dismantling Wycombe’s man-marking

Wycombe’s defensive man-marking system has been so successful because of how well suited their players, in midfield especially, are at carrying out their individual tasks. However, with lots of rotation and quick combinations these type of systems can be dismantled, which is exactly what Alex Neil set out to do with his game plan.

Narrow wingers to draw out the full-backs

It was apparent right from the start of the match how we were looking to exploit Wycombe’s full pitch man-marking, especially that of the full-backs.

Whereas against Sheffield Wednesday we used Clarke and Roberts high and wide to pin their wing-backs, here Roberts and Embleton were tasked with drifting inside to open up spaces down the flanks.

1. Right from the start, the narrow positioning of Roberts and Embleton is pulling McCarthy and Jacobson massively out of position.

2. Embleton (circled) comes narrow off the left to a central position, dragging McCarthy all the way across from his right-back position. Pritchard drifts over to the right, where Roberts has also pulled Jacobson inside (circled blue). Stewart smartly pulls towards the back-post (where McCarthy should be) and almost punishes Tafazolli’s error.

3. Roberts’ narrow positioning again attracts Jacobson, Stewart drifts into the channel to receive the ball down the line.

4. Roberts and Pritchard rotate which causes confusion for Scowen and Jacobson, who can’t reorganise themselves in time. Jacobson as a result is too far off, and is easily skipped past by Pritchard in the channel.

5. Jacobson dragged inside on the left, McCarthy dragged inside on the right, which leaves tonnes of space for Cirkin on the far-side who is able to run off McLeary. Unfortunately, we are too late in releasing the pass.

Stewart dropping and runners from midfield

6. Ross Stewart dropping towards the ball often dragged out either Tafazolli (circled) or Stewart, which again created space in behind for a midfield runner, in this example Pritchard.

7. Stewart won a number of first balls in our right channel in the opening 15 minutes by dropping towards the ball, taking Tafazolli out of his slot in the process. Jacobson often had to drop in to cover which often left Roberts free on our right.

9. Their man-marking left massive gaps behind their midfield. Scowen was isolated at the base and had too much ground to cover, and their full-backs were often dragged out as mentioned. O’Nien, Evans and Pritchard therefore looked to make runs off the shoulder to exploit this.

10. Here Evans makes a run into the opened space behind Jacobson, following Roberts and Stewart pulling Jacobson and Tafazolli out of position.

Roberts’ diagonal runs

11. Horgan and Gape occupied by their man-marking jobs on O’Nien and Evans, meaning Roberts can move diagonally inside off Jacobson to create 2v1’s against Scowen, using bounce passes with Pritchard or Embleton who rotated into the #10 position.

12. Again Scowen isolated at the base, Roberts drifts inside with Jacobson reluctant to follow.

13. Whenever he was isolated 1v1 against Jacobson he could also easily beat him, driving inside to create 2v1’s against Scowen centrally.

14. This threat from the right continued into the second half, with Roberts diagonal dribbling causing havoc through the middle for Wycombe and Scowen again.

Embleton and Pritchard freedom

As covered above, Pritchard and Embleton were given massive freedom to rotate and drift across the pitch. Jack Clarke being named on the bench was the biggest surprise pre-match, however it was quickly clear why, as Embleton is far more comfortable receiving in central areas.

15. This move summed up how the freedom of our forward players, Pritchard and Embleton especially, were able to rip Wycombe’s defensive structure apart: Embleton drifts over to pin Scowen and Tafazolli meaning Pritchard is free to receive.

16. Embleton then drags Tafazolli wide, opening the pass into Stewart (just offside), who lays off to Roberts who again drives diagonally off of Jacobson.

17. Embleton and Pritchard again drift to one side of the pitch to combine: Stewart ends up isolated against Pritchard, who puts in a fantastic delivery from wide into Stewart at the back post.

18. Pritchard rotates left and attracts McCarthy when receiving; Embleton makes a movement off Scowen’s shoulder to receive behind and drive at Wycombe’s backline.

Pritchard (top) and Embleton’s (bottom) touch maps show how much freedom they were given within our system:

Dealing with Wycombe’s main threats

Embleton drops back and Roberts nullifies Jacobson

19. Embleton was given man-marking responsibility down our left of McCarthy, which meant it often looked like a back five when we were forced into our defensive shape.

20. On Wycombe’s left, Joe Jacobson took up his typically narrow position, which usually gives him better angles to deliver into the box or play diagonals out to the other side. Roberts however was constantly positioned within 5-10 yards of him, nullifying his threat and preventing Wycombe from recycling the ball out to him.

Midfield double up

21. Unlike Wycombe’s man-marking which left massive gaps in the midfield, Evans and O’Nien’s stayed central to screen our defence, only man-marking once a midfielder came into their zone and doubling up out wide. Both O’Nien and Evans were outstanding in tracking runners from the midfield.

22. O’Nien tracks brilliantly when both Cirkin and Embleton are dragged wide on the left.

Prichard’s pressing job

23. One of Wycombe’s main patterns is the long diagonal from Stewart into Vokes, from which they build off the second ball. Pritchard did a fantastic job in pressing Stewart, using his angle of approach to both cut the pass into Scowen centrally and force passes down the line, which Wycombe found very difficult to build off.

24. Pritchard again uses his body incredibly intelligently to screen the pass into Scowen and force Stewart to play to his left into Tafazolli.


25. Generally we did an excellent job getting tight in wider areas to prevent time and space for crosses into the penalty area.

26. However, the man-marking from our wingers meant we were susceptible to lapses of concentration. In an almost identical situation to Gregory’s goal for Sheffield Wednesday, here Embleton briefly switches off and is caught on his inside shoulder.

27. When we weren’t able to get pressure on the ball down our left, Wycombe created dangerous situations with Vokes isolating himself against Gooch at the back post.

28a and 28b. Although our midfield were disciplined in their screening and stayed central, O’Nien on the very rare occasion was guilty of jumping too high to press and leaving our backline a bit exposed.

Ainsworth’s aggressive changes leave them open

The opening 25 minutes of the half did not follow much of a pattern. Wycombe had some spells of pressure that was often caused by a failure from us to win the second balls, giving away some cheap free kicks in the process.

Hanlon and Akinfenwa subs lead to change of shape

29. The introductions of Hanlon and Akinfenwa lead to a change of shape, with Vokes, Hanlon and Akinfenwa forming a narrow front three that looked to pin our backline against direct balls. This had some success, with Akinfenwa winning first balls and leaving our backline vulnerable.

30. Again both centre-backs have to challenge and gaps open up in the backline.

31. This pinning of our backline meant we were starting to drop a bit too deep and weren’t getting pressure on the ball like before. Here Alex Neil is screaming at Roberts to apply pressure to Jacobson to prevent him from playing an unopposed ball forwards.

32. Hanlon provided a more physical presence than Obita down their left, rolling Gooch in the channel for one of Wycombe’s better chances.

Big spaces through the middle and down the sides

33. However, as Wycombe were now leaving their front three ahead of the ball and starting to push their full-backs on more aggressively, there were increasingly bigger spaces to exploit down the sides and through the middle. This perfectly played into Alex Neil’s plan for Jack Clarke off the bench, who immediately gave us more directness and a threat in behind.

34. Just as Wycombe started to increase the pressure, we exploited their lack of control over the middle. Pritchard again drifts wide, dragging Scowen all the way over and plays a give and go with Roberts. There is no one covering the space in front of the defence and Scowen can’t recover, giving Stewart space to peel off Stewart on the edge. 2-0.

35. We could attack at will whenever we won a second ball as Wycombe became more desperate and piled bodies forward.

36a and 36b. There were massive spaces down the sides for Roberts and Clarke to exploit following our second goal.

Back five to see it out

37. Neil quickly reacted to Wycombe pinning in our back-four, introducing Doyle for Pritchard to move to a back three, giving us more presence centrally on long balls and for crosses into our box.


It was a final that summed up everything Alex Neil has brought to us so far: adapting to the quality of the opposition and picking a specific lineup and system that would be able to exploit them. It was about as comfortable and dominant a final performance as you could realistically expect, nullifying so many of Wycombe’s strengths and pulling their man-marking apart, especially in the midfield areas.

Hopefully we get our recruitment right in the summer, and tie Neil down to a longer contract, as if we do I think our realistic expectations can be a lot higher than just staying up and consolidating, even in the first season.


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