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Sunderland v Norwich City - Sky Bet Championship

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Talking Tactics: Norwich defeat highlights the foundations for Alex Neil’s successor

Now that the dust has settled, RR’s resident analyst Coel Young looks closer at Sunderland’s performance on Saturday - and there are some promising observations that should ensure the next man has a good start.

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Lineups and Shape


Our pressing triggers were the same as they often have been this season; forcing the ball towards the touchline to allow their full-backs to have possession, where one of our wing-backs will jump out to apply pressure if they’re close enough, cut the pitch in half and look to force a turnover high up (or back to the GK).

This again was a key reason for our excellent start against Norwich, who often played into their full-backs when looking to build from deep. This was generally our trigger, and Dan Neil in particular played with brilliant intensity in his closing down and application of pressure to force turnovers on our right side.

Pritchard and Evans closing down options infield.

When Norwich dropped another man into the centre to look to overload us (covered more below), one of our centre-backs would step into the midfield area to enable us to match-up. These high turnovers provided us with some really good moments.

Avenues of attack

Outside of our high turnovers, we threatened the Norwich backline in a variety of ways throughout the match.

One of these was through their midfield, with Pritchard and Stewart especially dropping into intelligent spaces behind their midfield line. The Norwich midfield three was poorly organised and lacked compactness throughout, which we exploited numerous times with clever positioning and quick combinations.

Similarly, when we played more directly, the lack of compactness Norwich had between their midfield and defence meant we were able to pick up second balls and knockdowns.

Another way we attacked Norwich was through the spaces they left in the channels down the sides, where we looked to utilise the pace and mobility of Simms and Stewart to isolate their centre-backs 1v1 in the wider areas.

The final avenue we often utilised was with our width, with Clarke especially offering a brilliant outlet on the left and was supported by Cirkin over and underlapping runs from his left centre-back position. Sinani on the far side often couldn’t provide support to Aarons immediately due to Norwich’s plan to press 3v3 against our back three when we were building up.

Norwich threat

Despite their poor display off the ball, Norwich intelligently exploited our shape out of possession in a few different ways.

Firstly, they used dropping movements from Josh Sergent to create a 4v3 overload in the middle against our midfield, which was a big factor in a lot of Norwich’s movements in the first half. This overload created the free man which Neil and Evans couldn’t cover, and gave Norwich the option to progress centrally.

The second way in which Norwich were able to find success was by using our own pressing triggers, luring Gooch forward before directly playing into Hernández. The dangerous Hernández would stay wide to drag O’Nien into 1v1 situations near the touchline, and was a big area of danger in the first half.

Second half

The opening 15 minutes of the second half started in a similar manner, with the dropping movements of Simms and Stewart constantly exploiting the big gaps in the Norwich midfield area.

Our double chance came from this poor organisation of Norwich in midfield, with Dan Neil pushing forward to pick up a really intelligent position within their defensive organisation before delivering a brilliant curling ball to the back-post.

Clarke also continued to act as an outlet on the left when we were able to bypass Norwich’s front-three.

Norwich changes

The quality of player Norwich were able to bring off the bench massively swung the momentum of the game, with Ramsay, Cantwell and Pukki all very comfortable players technically who immediately allowed Norwich to retain the ball higher up the pitch and start to exploit the growing gaps in our midfield area.

Pukki, especially, was incredibly effective at dropping deep, often pulling Batth out of position and creating gaps in our backline.

This ultimately resulted in Norwich’s winner, with Pukki drifting over to our left side (pulling Batth out of his slot), retaining and releasing into Ramsay following a clever rotation, who delivered a fantastic ball across the face of our goal into Sargent.

Our own changes were probably made too late with Evans and Neil starting to get overran. Embleton had a bad time when he came on, and Roberts didn’t have enough time to affect the game, although he did pick up a few good position behind Norwich’s midfield line.


The match summed up a lot of our strengths and weaknesses and highlighted the platform that Alex Neil’s successor has got to build off.

We are a very athletic side who can press aggressively, with lots of pace and mobility at the top of the pitch in Simms and Stewart, who also can intelligently come towards the ball to receive in pockets of space. Clarke is a massively outlet on the left who gives us lots of 1v1 ability, and him and Cirkin have a brilliant dynamic on that side of the pitch. Alex Neil has found a shape which suits a lot of the profiles of our squad, so hopefully whoever replaces him can provide some continuity in that regard.

A lot of our weaknesses are what you’d expect when playing a 5-2-1-2 shape, especially being overloaded in the middle of the pitch and therefore unable to cover the free man. Getting into the spaces behind our wing-backs is another weakness, although it is unlikely sides will be able to exploit this as effectively as Norwich who possess so much technical quality in playing through a press.

The match again also highlighted our lack of depth, particularly in midfield when we start to tire. The importance of having a more experienced option off the bench could be seen in the victory against Stoke last weekend following Evans’s introduction who immediately calmed the game down, and again this is something that could have helped against Norwich as we started to tire in the midfield.

In terms of Neil’s replacement, I would personally be more than happy with Tony Mowbray. He played a similar system with Blackburn last season (and would therefore provide that continuity), has vast experience, is clearly a superb man-manager and has worked with squads of similar age profiles multiple times previously.


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