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Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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Talking Tactics: How ultra-aggressive and clinical Sunderland managed to beat Bristol City

Ellis Simms and Ross Stewart showed signs of sparking a potentially potent partnership at Ashton Gate on Saturday, finishing off some clinical attacking play. Here’s what the data shows.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Alex Neil made one change from the opening game draw for the visit to Bristol City, and it was an important one – Ellis Simms replaced Elliot Embleton as the lads switched to a 3-4-1-2 formation. Alex Pritchard lined up as a 10 behind Simms and Ross Stewart, and those three were to go on to form a crucially important attacking unit.


Aggressive pressing

Last season, Alex Neil addressed the defensive frailty of the side and lined us up to be solid and conservative for the most part – at least early on to shore up a defence that at one point was 18th best away from home. Many will have expected the same going into our first season back in the Championship in four years, but the opposite has been the case.

True to his word, Alex Neil has built a team around Dan Neil this season, in a very aggressive and attacking nature. While our PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) is quite high at 14.7, we have completed the second-most “high turnovers”, sixth-most leading to a shot and joint-most leading to a goal. A high turnover is a turnover of the ball from the attacking team in their 40th percentile of the pitch.

Furthermore, we have completed more defensive actions than any other side in the opposite third of the pitch. Essentially, our first phase of the press is incredibly aggressive – Stewart, Simms, Pritch, Neil, Clarke and Gooch all harry and harass the ball carriers in their third. Then, however, we revert into quite a low block and allow the opposition to carry the ball out. This accounts for the high number of pressing actions in the final third but overall low PPDA.

Much of this comes from Roscoe. He is like a dog on a leash when within five feet of opposition defenders, and his brilliantly-timed sliding tackle on Kal Naismith opened up the opportunity for Simms to grab the opener, as below:

Note, while Roscoe makes the tackle we have seven players in Bristol’s half, including five in their final third all spaced out to cut the passing lanes and ready to press the ball carrier should the ball cross into their pressing zone.


Ultra-clinical attack

We are currently the league’s joint-top scorers but have done so with just a 1.32 xG from open play (which is a decent 8th overall). Against Bristol City, we had just 0.76 xG and 41% possession. However, we created 16 attempts on goal, including 12 from open play - converting 18% of these. We have among the lowest attacks in direct speed and length and passes per sequence, meaning that we are not seeing much of the ball but are creating a high quantity of quality chances from this.

Overall, our style of play is quite hard to narrow down. When attacking we generally do so quickly with lots of short passes and players interchanging positions often - but due to the low quantity of time in which we have seen the ball, it’s hard to measure a metric. Most of the second half against Coventry and the first half on Saturday was spent on the back foot. Then late on we retreated into a defensive shape to hold off Bristol’s push for a goal.

As a result, Who Scored’s post-match analysis nicely sums up our play:

Each of the three goals was a result of sequences of play with fewer than seven passes and resulted from turnovers. Simms’ second was a brilliant counter but, again, played quite quickly and incisively. While we could’ve scored even more, it seems antithetical to say the play was clinical. But the ratio of chances compared to possession and time on the ball was enormous. It speaks volumes that a 2-3 result had a probability of 0.8% actually occurring. Our ability to take advantage of Bristol City’s mistakes mattered most on the day, and this turned the tide.

Overall, the game itself was odd. I found myself fuming at some parts of the ineptitude of the first half. Despite scoring, we looked largely devoid of creativity and very open defensively. Pritch played off the boil and isolated for much of the half and was unable to link midfield and attack effectively enough. Yet from the moment of the home side’s second goal he was magnificent as a real two-way attacking midfielder. Everything was through him, and he led from the front off the ball too and deserved his two fantastic assists - it was such a wild 180 I think both he and all the other fans in the away end got whiplash from it. Then from the moment their second went in, the entire team was excellent.

Neil changed tact in the second half slightly by dropping Stewart and Pritch deeper to stretch their three. It created so much space for Simms and we are so fluid in that we can easily switch from a 4-2-3-1 to the favoured back-three, and when we scored, it was essentially a flat four very high up the pitch. Dan Neil again impressed on the ball and his small touch and quick passing with Stewart opened up the opposition for Pritch to thread a beauty of a through ball into Simms.


Defensive worries

On the flip side, due to this aggressive and clinical style of play - we are incredibly open at the back. Jack Clarke has been outstanding, but sometimes playing at LWB he is as heart-attack-inducingly nerve-wracking at the back as he is dynamic in attack. 41% of our build-up play came from down the left-hand side and after Sykes was withdrawn he had almost free reign on Saturday.

This is sometimes natural when two sides deploying a back-five meet, and it was a key part of the opening game at the SoL too. Often in attacks, the wing-back that is on the opposing flank of the pitch to where the ball is becomes a spare man in acres of space, and this diag onto Clarke’s wing was the opposition's weapon of choice. Both goals came from down the left, and we will need to shore that up in the future. As you can see below, their highest individual xG chance came from a diagonal that had left Clarke isolated 1 v 1 with another running off his shoulder free:

It is unfair to single out Clarke, though. He is still learning this role, and I don’t want to blame him for anything as it is part and parcel of the risk of playing him out of position. However, as a team, we have given away far too many chances - Patto bailed us out at home last week, and this week our own quality in attack did the same - but we actually have the highest xGA in the entire Championship at 2.34 - and this is unsustainable over the course of a season. Weirdly our defenders have generally all performed admirably individually, but as a unit, they are turning off too often and are not cohesive enough. The final 20 minutes of the game hopefully can provide a blueprint going forwards, as we held on admirably - but the aforementioned Martin chance really should have levelled the game.

We need to be less naive and more cohesive and compact over the course of the game - midfield and the wing-backs could be problem areas, while a genuinely experienced central defender could be a welcome addition too. Going forward, early signs are good, but this defence needs to tighten up quickly. Thankfully Neil is an expert at doing just that.

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