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Middlesbrough v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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Talking Tactics: How did Ross Stewart’s absence disrupt Sunderland’s game plan against ‘Boro?

RR’s resident analyst Coel Young is back to dissect Sunderland’s performance at Boro on Monday - how did the absence of Rossco disrupt Sunderland’s game plan?

Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Lineups and Shape

Change of system

As Tony Mowbray discussed in detail post-match, the injury to Ross Stewart meant we had to alter our system to instead play two number 10’s in Roberts and Pritchard behind Ellis Simms, meaning we used a 3-4-2-1 system.

It was clear in the first half how we would look to exploit Middlesbrough if Stewart was fit, hitting the spaces down the sides of their aggressive centre backs with the mobility of our front two.

Simms does well back to goal, try to release Roberts into space.

The change of shape meant we had to do this differently. Pritchard and Roberts dropped towards the ball, drawing out McNair and Clarke respectively, and Simms would look to isolate himself against Fry in wide areas.

Clarke dragged out by Roberts’ positioning, Simms pins Fry in channel.

Despite the (unfair) criticisms of Simms post-match, in the first half especially he did a good job in offering a platform for us to play long, securing a number of first balls against a physical Dale Fry and bringing Roberts and Pritchard into play.

Simms secures the ball up against Fry and gives us a good platform to play off.

He also dropped between the lines occasionally to combine with our 10’s, for example here Roberts picks up a good position and we look to isolate Clarke against Jones on the far side.

Good positioning from Roberts between lines to receive bounce pass.

However, it was the next sequences where the loss of Stewart could be seen, as we didn’t possess the threat in-behind to exploit ‘Boro’s relatively high line.

Out of possession, our approach stayed relatively similar. Pritchard and Roberts would work across the pitch to cut it in half and force Middlesbrough’s play to one side.

Roberts pressing Howson from behind to prevent him from switching out to the other side.

The change of system did cause some confusion, with neither Pritchard or Roberts screening Howson (which visibly frustrated Mowbray).

‘Boro threat

As has been the case all season, Middlesbrough’s main threat came from their wing-backs, where they looked to target the space in behind Clarke with Isaiah Jones, and look to load the box when Giles received on the left. Three of their more clear chances, including the goal, came from basic errors such as not closing Giles down aggressively enough and not being tight enough with our marking in the box.

A lot of Middlesbrough shots from central locations in the box.

A lot of their other positive moments came when Muniz was able to win first balls and create gaps in our backline, where ‘Boro would then look to get runners beyond or support around.

Muniz wins first ball, pulling Batth out centrally.
Muniz attracts Batth and O’Nien and finds runner in Watmore behind.

Riley McGree also caused us some issues, picking up the spaces between Evans and Neil and often being the connecting player to switch to the far side.

McGreed drops to receive off Howson, allows Boro to switch to other side.

However, their fast start was helped by a number of unforced errors by us, and like ourselves didn’t really create much in the way of clear-cut chances. Overall, there was very little of what you’d typically expect from Chris Wilder sides, such as overlapping centre backs, cut-backs and constant rotation in the wide areas.

One of few instances Middlesbrough were able to drag one of our centre-backs wide to find runners inside.
McNair creates 2v1 out wide. Not much of this happened however.

Some of their best moments in the second half came when we started to commit bodies forward and left ourselves exposed at the back.

Roberts and Pritchard

In the first half, a big issue when we were able to sustain possession in the middle third was how deep Pritchard and Roberts were receiving the ball. They came too far towards the ball and therefore did very little to threaten the Middesbrough defensive shape, and again also left Simms isolated against three centre-backs.

Big spaces between Boro midfield but Roberts and Pritchard outside the lines of pressure. Yellow highlights where they could be to disrupt their shape more.

Roberts, in particular, caused a few turnovers by dropping deep and losing the ball.

Roberts’ touch map in first half. Left side is the attacking half- quite a lot of touches deep and in our own half.

These two situations were the few instances where they were able to combine in the first half or pick up great positions behind their lines, and it was clear this was an avenue we could exploit with big spaces between the ‘Boro midfield three where Howson was isolated at the base.

Boro midfield massively stretched, good positioning from our two 10’s here.

In the second half, both started to pick up far better positions behind the midfield line which started to pull the centre-backs out of their slots, where we could then look to play into the spaces behind.

Both Dijksteel and Clarke pulled out, Simms almost gets in behind.
Again both Clarke and Dijksteel unsure whether to step in, big gaps either side of Fry.

I thought they were both having a growing influence on the game prior to their substitution, and their replacements Embleton and Diallo were then both guilty of coming too far towards the ball and not looking to disrupt the Middlesbrough defensive shape by being braver with their positioning.

A promising sign, however, was the threat Diallo gave us in behind when there was space to do so. If he can combine his technical ability in tight spaces with a willingness to run behind, then he may prove to be a valuable alternative to Roberts in Stewart’s absence.


It was a really disappointing result against a sub-par Middlesbrough side, and it is quite obvious Stewart’s absence was the decisive factor for our defeat due to the speed and mobility he’d have given us down the sides of their defence.

There were some positive aspects to build on, however. Pritchard and Roberts were involved in some good combinations prior to their substitutions and provide us with an ability to play in tight spaces between opposition lines, so hopefully that is a relationship that can grow in the coming weeks.

I also think Simms showed he is more than capable of playing up-front by himself, but it is vital that we have an additional threat in behind the opposition backline, whether this is from one of our 10’s or the midfield.


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