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Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship

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Talking Tactics: How Sunderland’s midfield controlled the game against Boro

On Sunday afternoon, the lads defeated local rivals Middlesbrough with a controlled display highlighting a few tactical curiosities - including a different form of pressing, Trai Hume excelling as an ‘inverted full-back’, and Dan Neil running the show.

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

Tony Mowbray named two changes from the side that lost against Swansea a week earlier, as Danny Batth replaced the suspended Luke O’Nien in the heart of defence, and Aji Alese made his return from injury as Lynden Gooch bowed out with a hip issue.

For most of his time as Sunderland's head coach, Mogga has instructed his side to press high, force turnovers in the opposition's final third, and harass the ball carrier as much as possible. However, on Sunday he was acutely aware of the threat on the counter the visitors posed through Chuba Apkom, Ryan Giles, Riley McGree, and Marcus Forss. He does, however, understand that Dael Fry, Darragh Lenihan and Zack Steffen are weak at building from the back - with the latter particularly prone to a clanger when pushed into rushing passes.

Thus, the initial phase of the press led by the tireless running of the entire front four and Dan Neil remained as expected. However, in the second and third phases in which the opposition carry the ball beyond their penalty area and into Sunderland territory, we sat deeper and looked to cut passing lanes. This was clearly to congest the centre of the pitch and limit the amount of space that Akpom, McGree, and Hayden Hackney to create as they have done since Michael Carrick got the job just down the road.

More often than not, you would see two of the front four press high and then retreat, picking up the space rather than closing the man down.

Below, you can see that we win the ball back by Neil & Patrick Roberts retreating (and thus leaving both Hackney and McGree in acres of space) to stop this supply line:

In both these situations, Dan Neil was heavily involved. I’d just like to take a second and state (for the 100th time) just how mature his performances have been this season.

18 months ago he barely tracked runners, now just look at the effort put in then the impeccable timing of this tackle, then turn and pass to set up the attack which led to Roscoe’s disallowed goal:

However, we did still typically press high and forced their two central defenders and keeper into mistakes - which led to Amad’s first big chance of the game:

In fact, only WBA has completed more high turnovers this season, and only Burnley have forced more defenders into an error leading to an effort on goal.

This was one of the main features of the first half, as we attempted to control the midfield to stifle Middlesbrough. Carrick, however, got his tactics all wrong. Boro’s defensive line was suicidally high throughout the entire game and allowed us to counter over the top & in behind a slow defensive pairing in the middle.

Sometimes I scratch my head and wonder if the opposition ever studies our games as almost every single time a side has played like this, we have won. Those who come to the SoL, sit deep, and soak up pressure usually nullify our potent attack and come away with points. The congestion of midfield forced Matt Crooks wide and Akpom deep every time.

In order to combat this, their defence pushed even further up and were torn apart time after time with profligate finishing and the offside flag coming to their rescue, as below:

And again:

I could share a dozen of these chances but decided to just highlight a couple of different attacks built in different ways to a different outlet each time.

The former is also very intriguing, as Neil is allowed to break the lines and press Boro to force the error because Trai Hume is pushed very high and narrow.

All game, and particularly after Fry was shown red, Hume tracked into the middle of the park and stepped up to ensure numerical advantage. He was allowed to do so because Akpom was forced to come deep to collect the ball and because McGree playing on the left wing never looked to stay wide and overlap.

This resulted in a few counters from Ryan Giles out wide left, who once messed his pass up, but mostly Hume covered:

But he did find Forss on one occasion as Patto stepped up with a solid save:

It is a fascinating development and allowed by Hume’s own all-round developing game, keen technical ability, and excellence in reading situational plays.

It may be an exaggeration, but his role as an “inverted full-back” really reminded me of a myriad of those to play in that position under Pep Guardiola.

For example, right now Manchester City utilises Cancelo as almost a 4th midfielder in the middle of the park, sweeping narrow to, again, ensure numerical advantage in a congested middle third. Mahrez and Foden (or Grealish/Alvarez if out wide) provide the width and the 8 & 10 bomb forwards to support Haaland.

Below are just a few examples of Hume stepping into midfield to do the same, both before and after the red card:

It may not be particularly insightful nor fit under the remit of tactics, but the highest praise that you can give this side right now is that the football being played is just so enjoyable to watch.

I love going to the games, and seeing a side brimming with young talent and seasoned pros who play with smiles on their faces pulling together in the same direction.

It may be a gross exaggeration, but more successful Sunderland sides in the past have often been effective and functional.

This team, this squad built up by everyone behind the scenes all working towards the same goal just going out there and playing the best football I can remember in red & white. Every game you see a wonderful move of one-touch stuff finished off with a good chance to score, or a goal itself.

Amad typifies much of this. I feel like I am remiss in not really analyzing much of his game as he is just that good. His statistics at the weekend don’t tell the whole story, but it speaks volumes that he is the only attacking player in the entirety of England this season to have completed over 95% of his passes in a game when attempting over 70 (counting league football only, these stats are hard to come by in non-league).

I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so consistently and utterly surrounded by opposition players continue to find a teammate. Again, on Sunday alone he has the most touches (93) of any attacking player in the league in a single match.

Check out the passing percentages across the entire side as a whole below:

In truth, it is hard to single out just a few names from the side who all performed well, but these few tactical nuances really turned the tide & created a solid platform in which that front four could run rampant over Boro all game.

The move below encompassed everything I have covered here, and everything good about this side. It ended in Amad’s excellent goal but consisted of over a minute's worth of possession without a single Boro touch in which ten players touched the ball for a total of 17 passes:

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