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Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League 1 Play-Off S-F

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Talking Tactics: Change of system pays off for Sunderland and Alex Neil

How did Alex Neil mastermind Sunderland’s first leg win on Friday? RR’s resident analyst Coel Young dives deep to find out…

Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Lineups and Shape

Switch to a back-four

The most obvious tactical change right from the start of the match vs Sheffield Wednesday was our change of system from our usual 5-2-1-2/3-4-3 to a 4-2-3-1.

This tactical switch by Alex Neil was massively beneficial in giving us a foothold and settling us down in possession, which was important considering the occasion and atmosphere inside the ground.

Sheffield Wednesday play with a narrow 5-3-2 out of possession, so our choice to build up with a deep back four meant our full-backs were constantly our free men in possession, allowing us to easily recycle the ball to them.

At the same time, Clarke and Roberts played high and wide against the touchlines, which had the effect of pinning back Wednesday’s wing-backs, preventing them from jumping up to apply pressure:

Palmer pinned back by Clarke’s positioning high and wide, Cirkin then free outside of Wednesday’s narrow midfield.

If they did, they ran the risk of having Hutchinson/Storey dragged into a 1v1 out wide against Roberts/Clarke. Here, Johnson jumps out to Gooch, we play over into Stewart who lays-off to Roberts, who can attack Hutchinson 1v1:

We constantly bypassed the first line of Wednesday’s press throughout the first half, with Gregory, Berahino and Bannan struggling to firstly press our build-up across our backline...

...and then prevent the pass back into midfield where O’Nien and Evans were often free to receive (and switch out to the other side where our full-back was the free man):

Berahino and Gregory can’t screen the passes into midfield and Bannan doesn’t support the press.

When we played direct into the forward line, Evans and O’Nien especially were outstanding in winning the second balls, again helping us to dominate possession.


Another benefit the change to the 4-2-3-1 had was out-of-possession, as it essentially allowed us to go man-man against their backline and midfield with Stewart, Roberts and Clarke pressing onto their centre-backs and full marking of their midfield three:

Clarke and Roberts looked to force play down the middle with their body positioning.

We constantly forced Wednesday into long balls, where Batth and Wright were dominant in their aerial duels against Gregory and Berahino, winning a combined nine duels in the first half compared to two by the Wednesday forwards.

The decision to press high was a good one despite the potential of leaving Wright and Batth exposed, as Wednesday did not have much pace in their forward line and carried little threat in behind.

Wednesday’s one promising move of the match came from Berahino dropping into the pocket behind our man-marking midfield, which would become more of an issue for us in the second half:

Our midfield occupied by their man-marking jobs, and Batth reluctant to follow Berahino all the way in.

Issues ahead of the ball

Although the system change helped us gain an important foothold in the game and settle us down, when we progressed into the full-backs there was little in the way of attacking threat in the first half.

As mentioned, Clarke and Roberts were tasked with playing high and wide, which meant that generally Stewart and Pritchard were the only options through the centre of the pitch. Pritchard often dropped to get on the ball and help us retain possession, but he found it difficult to get into the areas where he is most effective behind their midfield line:

The one occasion we were able to find Pritchard in an advanced area was when we quickly countered after winning the ball back, finding Pritchard between the lines and releasing Roberts into space down the sides of their back-three:

Generally, we were restricted to the wide areas and some promising moments on the counter attack. Wednesday dealt with crosses into the box relatively comfortable, especially considering how much width we played with in possession which left Stewart quite isolated in the penalty area during these situations.

Start of the second half

The opening 15 minutes of the second half was the best spell of the match for us, where we again pinned Sheffield Wednesday in, won second balls, and quickly got the ball out to the free full-backs (Gooch and Cirkin):

We also started to generate more chances from out wide, especially when we were able to quickly switch the play out to our left to find Clarke in 1v1 situations. Despite his flaws, Clarke is excellent at committing his man by driving directly at him, with good close control and the ability to shift the ball quickly to find half a yard. In these two situations, our quick switches of play mean it is difficult for the Wednesday midfield to shift across:

Situation before Pritchard’s shot which hit the bar, Wednesday’s midfield stretched following the switch.
Cirkin overlaps well to create the 2v1 against Palmer. Again the distance too big for Byers to shuffle across following switch of play.

I also thought Stewart was very good back-to-goal throughout the match and in the second half especially. He won a number of first balls when we played directly up to him which we supported well, again giving us a platform to build attacks.

Roberts and Pritchard moving onto the second ball.

Wednesday finish strongly

Following our initial good start to the half, Wednesday finished the match relatively strongly, especially following the introduction of Josh Windass from the bench.

Following his introduction, Windass caused us issues by dropping into the midfield area when Wednesday were in possession:

Considering our man-marking approach in the middle, this created an overload centrally and meant Wednesday had a free man. On a few situations, this dragged our midfield apart and left some big gaps for Wednesday to receive in:

Windass (circled next to Pritchard) has dropped to attract Pritchard, creating a 4v3 in the middle and Luongo free to receive.
Again Windass dropping disrupts our man-marking and creates big gap behind our midfield.

Because we looked to press Sheffield Wednesday high up and man-man against their backline, this ran the risk of being exposed if we lost the first ball. On the rare occasions we did, it left us in vulnerable situations where the wing-backs had space down the sides due to our wingers pressing so high and our centre-back being dragged out of their slot, such as below:

Another big threat of Wednesday was on crossing situations, where Marvin Johnson provided a big threat with his delivery on the left, supported by the forward runs of Hutchinson from centre-back. Palmer pushed right on in the last 20 minutes and was effectively a right-winger, and it was a big mismatch between him and Clarke/Cirkin at the back post.

Neil reacted well to this threat down the left however, bringing on Embleton to support Gooch who tracked Hutchinson’s runs from centre-back well, in addition to Matete for Alex Pritchard, who took over O’Nien’s responsibility of man-marking Barry Bannan (and did an excellent job in doing so).

Overall and the second leg

In general, I thought it was a tie we managed excellently. The decision to build-up with a back four massively settled us down in possession, and our man-marking off the ball allowed us to be aggressive with our press due to the little threat Sheffield Wednesday carried in-behind us. I also think Neil got the team selection spot on, Evans and O’Nien’s experience showed with sensible decisions in possession and constant picking up of second balls, and the technically comfortable Pritchard and Roberts allowed us to retain the ball high up the pitch.

In the second leg however you worry whether we’ll be able to cope with the deeper crosses to the back post if we are pinned in for periods, where our full-backs are at a massive disadvantage physically. It is also unlikely we’ll be able to replicate the physical effort in terms of our high press, so it will be interesting to see how Neil prepares and also the system he’ll choose. I also hope Broadhead is fit as the tie is perfectly suited to him with more space to exploit, as we saw how uncomfortable Wednesday’s centre-backs looked when running towards their own goal.


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