Alex Neil deployed his Sunderland side in his tried and tested 3-Box-3 formation again in the weekend’s win at Stoke.
The only change from the loss against Sheffield United was the suspended Dan Neil being replaced by Jay Matete. Corry Evans, however, did make a welcome return from injury and started on the bench.
In terms of attacking output, this was arguably the weakest performance of the season - considering our outstandingly high numbers thus far.
I’ve seen xG figures range from 0.45 -1.06, which are our lowest this season by quite some distance - and most of that is owed to Roscoe’s two chances.
However, from a defensive standpoint, this has been our most complete performance yet, and in the second half in particular we did not look naive, nor particularly threatened despite committing quite a high quantity of individual errors and overly-aggressive approach resulting in giving away a high number of free-kicks in our half.
O’Neill Changes Tact to Match Sunderland
Oscar Wilde is said to have claimed that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness”. Now, I’m not going to get into a load of literary analysis here as I’m sure you’ll thank me, but Stoke boss Michael O’Neill changed the home side’s tact to attempt to neutralise our threat by matching up our system.
While Lewis Baker played in a deep-lying six role and not as a ten like Alex Pritchard does for us, everything else from their progression on the ball, pressing system and defensive line largely mirrored Sunderland’s, barring a few clear errors which told in the game’s crucial phase.
As Coel Young pointed out in the midweek loss against Sheffield United, we pushed high with our midfield to press the ball carrier and pen Sheff United to the centre of the pitch - thus congestion the area and opening up opportunities for a high turnover and likewise limiting their ability to progress the ball from midfield to defence.
Stoke attempted the same in the first half as Liam Delap & Jacob Brown would harass our ball carrier and force us through the middle of the park by cutting passing lanes to the wing-backs, while either wide central midfielder in Will Smallbone & Gavin Kilkenny would match up Elliot Embleton or Jay Matete like Pritch does for us.
This would give us only one outlet - direct over the top:
For much of the first half, our long balls were aimless and just invited pressure back on. However, twice they were pinpoint. The first, a loft from Lynden Gooch on the right releasing Ellis Simms was a warning for the goal:
But Stoke would not learn their lesson.
Despite the fact, they aimed to force us long and not out wide as we tend to prefer. Much of Sunderland’s regular game plan is around getting the ball wide and then centrally again into Pritchard in space to work the ball to the top two. However, Jack Clarke did find space right on the stroke of half-time as he stole the ball from Tariqe Fosu who gave it away far too easily, ran inside his half and found Roscoe over the top with a perfectly timed through ball:
Ordinarily, Stoke plays with a much more passive low block in defence and likewise works the ball out wide as opposed to long and direct. Part of this could perhaps have been due to injuries suffered by regular first-choice wing-backs Tymon, Laurent and Clarke - but Michael O'Neill emulated Sunderland’s tactics up until that goal against the run of play as Delap and Brown caused all sorts of problems all game long from their direct running and pace in behind, in particular with the former targeting the space in behind Luke O’Nien.
Stoke tried to emulate Sunderland’s pressing system, and even their own best chances came through releasing their top two early and causing high turnovers.
However, mediocrity can only imitate, and not master what those are great at doing in the first place & the decision to have a defensive line that averaged a position just shy of the halfway line with a 40-year-old Phil Jagielka and slow Ben Wilmot in the heart of would’ve been music to Simms & Roscoe’s ears. His game plan almost worked but did not factor in the inability of Jagielka, Wilmot & co to stop Stewart at full tilt.
Alex Neil’s Half-Time Changes
On Wednesday, had Alex Neil made changes at half-time, we could have come away from Bramall Lane with a brilliant point. In the end, the changes he did make were spot on in stopping us from leaking chances and territory in the midfield.
Having learned from this lesson, however, Neil was taking no chances. He introduced Corry Evans & Bailey Wright for Jay Matete & Luke O’Nien during the break. This added experience in the side & took away two who were performing fine but suffering from being targeted by Stoke’s willing runners and thus had picked up yellows. Crucially, however, Neil also instructed his side at least 15 yards up the pitch and told Clarke, Gooch & Embleton to push up closer to the front three to pin back Stoke’s midfield and deny their ability to get the ball to Delap and Brown in dangerous areas of the pitch.
Evans is crucial here, as you just can tell from the play and the body language of the players that the forward players trust him absolutely to keep a solid base in midfield and sweep up after them, allowing the other 6 midfielders/forwards on the pitch to carry out and ultra-aggressive high press. As you can see below, Evans himself is also right up the pitch and this led to us stealing the ball and Evans having a shot at goal.
O’Neill tried to counter by dropping Delap deep to receive the ball out wide and brought on Gayle & Campbell. Gayle had one look-in as a result of our aggressive defensive structure and a Danny Batth mistake, but in general, this tactic backfired. All it did was allow Bailey Wright and Lynden Gooch to double up on Delap at any opportunity, and despite the fact the former was on a yellow card, he was barely troubled.
The gallery below is showing our very high & aggressive press which is excellently organised. It is designed to box an opponent in and either force them to play the ball long or give it away in a dangerous position. However, the risk of this is that when they get through there will almost certainly be a high danger chance from the opposition - see Gayle’s shot.
Lack of Control
Defensively, we were excellent. To a man, again, the side grafted and worked every blade of grass. Hard work, togetherness, keen tactical decision-making and ruthlessness in front of goal typify our season so far. Yet, having said that, we still committed a high number of individual mistakes on Saturday.
To combat this, we need to learn to control games more efficiently. While territorially we compete well, as you can see below we have surrendered all but our penalty area to the opposition in games so far this season:
Neil likely admits this is the case but at the minute prefers the results on the scoreboard. Which is the right thing to do while so many are still getting to grips with Championship football. But the best way to preserve energy and defend efficiently is to not give her other team the ball in the first place. Again, late on in the game we forced far too many long balls and gave it back to Stoke to attack us time after time. It is a small critique today, but one which could snowball if not nipped in the bud now.