Sunderland looked to make it five wins from six and back-to-back home victories with a win over Middlesbrough in the Wear-Tees derbynotaderby on Saturday.
Middlesbrough had found form in recent weeks, which made the fixture much more of a challenge for the Wearsiders than previously expected. And the challenge became much, more harder following Dan Neil’s red card, and Sunderland quickly imploded.
Michael Carrick was forced into a last-minute change before kick-off, after Rav Van Den Berg sustained a muscle injury in the warm-up. Tommy Smith replaced Van Den Berg, and because of this Carrick switched shape, defending in a 4-2-3-1 as shown below, while attacking with a 3-5-2; Jones and Engel operating as wingbacks.
Mowbray named an unchanged side from the team that beat Watford on Wednesday, however, Hume and Huggins swapped back to where they’d been playing previously, with Hume at right back and Huggins on the other flank, after surprisingly switching them against the Hornets.
Sunderland were, however, forced into an early change around the half hour after Huggins picked up a strain and was replaced by Jenson Seelt, who played right back with Hume switching back across to the left.
Sunderland struggle to figure out the press
Sunderland had set up to play against a flat back four, and therefore Middlesbrough’s change of system enforced by the late change flooded the midfield and caught the home team off-guard.
As a result, the opening stages were cagey and Sunderland were not only struggling to cope with Middlesbrough in transition out of possession, but also breaking the press while trying to advance the ball forward.
Trai Hume was quickly given licence to drift into his inverted fullback role and looked to even out the midfield battle. This prevented overloads and gave Sunderland some success within the buildup as Dan Neil was able to dictate things in the middle of the park as can be seen from his individual passing map seen below;
Dan Neil’s dismissal
Sunderland began to fashion out chances as the first half came to a close with Patrick Roberts forcing a spectacular save out of Senny Dieng, while Clarke had success dribbling into the Middlesbrough box. However as the stroke of half-time approached, neither side had done enough to edge in front.
Dan Neil was then shown a second yellow card for dissent – and the whole game changed.
In my opinion, if Sunderland had received a red card to any other player, they would have held resilience much longer than they did. But, with the dismissal of Sunderland’s only recognised holding midfielder in the squad, things were only going to end badly.
Both Jobe and Aouchiche are accomplished midfielders in their own right however, neither have the natural instincts to play in a holding role. Due to this, Sunderland lacked a player capable of screening the half spaces found within their midfield and therefore, fairly quickly into the second half, both Hackney and Barlaser were able to slide Middlesbrough’s attacking players into threatening spaces and exploit the extra man.
After falling 1-0 down, Hume, Ba, Aouchiche and Jobe all packed the midfield as Sunderland reverted to a 5-4-0 formation to try and make the pitch as narrow as possible. This then allowed Middlesbrough’s wide players in Jones and Engel, to push up into Sunderland’s final third and hold sustained pressure towards the home goal.
By nullifying the opportunity for Middlesbrough to attack through the middle, Jones was able to add a third in quick succession from out wide, killing the game off in the 72nd minute.
Depsite the huge negative of a 4-0 defeat, Sunderland fans shouldn’t feel like this is anything that should make them feel uncomfortable. Sunderland have a hugely talented squad capable of beating the majority of teams in the championship on their day, and therefore fans should remember the dismal really changed the game for Middlesbrough –and they’ve been in red hot form recently.
Despite the loss, fans shouldn’t feel like this is anything to be concerned about. Sunderland are currently in 4th place, respectable fixture list incoming and a bundle of household names returning from injury.