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Sunderland v Coventry City - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light

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Talking Tactics: Sunderland’s intelligent and aggressive pressing undone by smart Robins changes

RR’s resident analyst Coel Young is back to dissect Sunderland’s performance at the weekend - what did we do well in the first half that we weren’t able to do in the second?

Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Lineups and formations

Sunderland: 5-2-1-2. Coventry: 5-3-2.

Pressing traps and defensive shape

One massively impressive aspect of our performance throughout was our plan out of possession.

Our game plan firstly involved leaving McFadzean, Coventry’s weakest centre-back in possession, free to receive the ball whilst Stewart and Pritchard split wider.

Stewart and Pritchard splitting, Stewart cutting pass into Hyam when McFadzean looks to play out.

When McFadzean played a pass into to one of his wide centre-backs, Stewart or Pritchard would look to force the play down the sides, whilst the other would press McFadzean from behind to cut the pitch in half and prevent the easy pass inside.

Pritchard cutting the pitch in half with pressing angle, forcing McFadzean into pressure.
Again Pritchard arcing run to half the pitch.

If the ball was released into the wing-back, this would be our trigger to press, with Gooch and Clarke both pressing aggressively once Bidwell or Eccles received near the touchline.

Clarke applies pressure, encouraging loose pass into centre of pitch which Evans jumps on.
Gooch applies pressure intensely as soon as we force Coventry wide.

To support this press, Alex Neil deployed his typical man-marking system in central areas and across the backline, looking to force turnovers if the ball was played inside.

Midfielders aggressive and Ballard closes space between lines.

Our press was excellent in the opening 30 minutes, with Coventry very rarely able to progress into dangerous areas in the final third.

Very little touches for Coventry in dangerous areas in the opening 30 minutes. Graphic courtesy of

Plan in possession

Similarly, in possession we seemingly had a clear plan of how to exploit Coventry’s weaknesses. This generally involved overloading one side of the pitch to attract the Coventry midfield three before quickly switching out to the far-side.

Prithcard and Embleton were often seen in the first half drifting to the same side of the pitch, coupled with Stewart dropping off the front, to give us options in possession in order to attract to Coventry midfield and leave space on the far-side.

Coventry midfield (circled in blue) dragged over to one side. Massive spaces for Neil and Clarke on the left.
Embleton and Pritchard constantly drifted over to the ball-near side to create overloads before a switch of play.
This sequence summed up how well we created overloads on one side before quickly switching the point of attack.

Our opening goal showed the effectiveness of this approach in the first half especially, with the Coventry midfield completely dragged to one side due to the combinations between Pritchard and Embleton, meaning Bidwell had no support when isolated 1v1 with Gooch.

Intensity starts to drop off

The period between 30 minutes and half-time, however, served as a bit of a warning for what was to come later in the second half, especially when energy levels started to fall slightly.

During this period we started to become less disciplined in our man-marking by not covering options centrally, with Sheaf starting to influence the game with his brilliant range of pass.

Embleton not tight enough to Sheaf, Hamer bounces ball into Sheaf who plays brilliant outside of foot pass to Bidwell in behind.
Front three switch off, Sheaf completely free to receive.

Coventry’s centre-backs were also starting to become more aggressive with the ball, stepping in to overload us in the middle and exploiting our man-marking by acting as the free man. Panzo’s shot came from this increased aggressiveness.

Hyam drives past first line of press, Neil can’t step out to apply pressure and Allen and Gyökeres hovering behind.

Coventry subs change the game

Until Coventry made their substitutions, were had started the second half in a really controlled manner (barring our mess in playing out from the back), continuing to direct Coventry’s play down the sides and creating some openings on the counter attack behind their wing-backs.

Coventry’s best situations during this periods was when they were forced into more direct passes and our defensive line weren’t quick to drop enough. However, following the introduction of Palmer firstly who came in as a No.10, this attracted the attention of Evans and started to open direct passes into their forward line, allowing Coventry to gain more of a foothold and drive us deeper. This was despite O’Nien doing an excellent man-marking job on Sheaf following his introduction.

Robins then changed to a 4-2-3-1 shape, with the wingers (Gyökeres and Tavares by this point) coming narrow and Bidwell and Dabo advancing high. This caused us huge issues, especially following our own switch of shape to a back four in response to this with Roberts’ substitution.

Firstly, Panzo and Hyam were 2v1 against Stewart, and Panzo especially was frequently able to step in and create the 4v3 against our man-marking midfield trio. Here, for example, Panzo is able to step in and play directly into Gyökeres who is 1v1 against Gooch.

Another problem this created for our full-backs, which ultimately resulted in their equaliser, was due to them being pinned narrow by Coventry’s wingers and therefore unable to quickly press their full-backs.

All of these problems were summed up on the equaliser. Our midfield and Evans especially are first dragged over to one side due to Palmer’s No.10 role, therefore Panzo has time and space to step-in to a central area. Gyökeres then drops in between the lines and Gooch can’t follow as he is pinned back by Bidwell’s positioning (Roberts caught in-between), O’Nien is then wrong side and can’t make the tackle and Gyökeres’ finish is lethal.

Situation just prior to goal.


On the whole I thought it was a really impressive showing against one of the best possession-based sides in the Championship last year. We forced Coventry into the areas we wanted with our press and shape, looked organised behind the ball and constantly threatened on the counter, alongside a clear plan in possession first half.

I didn’t really agree with Neil’s decision to introduce Roberts and the change of system, however you can still see the reasoning for it (keep our back-four narrow) and I’m probably saying that with the benefit of hindsight.

Another aspect the game hopefully highlighted was the need for a midfielder who can slow down the tempo of the game in possession. None of our midfield profiles currently do that, and when in-front such as this game I think that should definitely be a priority before the end of the window.


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