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Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion - Sky Bet Championship

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Talking Tactics: Mike Dodds’ Tweaks to Sunderland’s Attacking Play

A large reason as to why Tony Mowbray lost his job as Head Coach are due to question marks over his tactics - in particular an inability to change the tide of a game. How did Mike Dodds fare in his first game in interim charge?

Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Mike Dodds made one big call in his first game in interim charge since the sacking of Tony Mowbray last Monday - to play Jobe Bellingham as a lone striker. The rest of the side - in terms of personnel - was generally quite similar from a side Mowbray will have lined up.

It was once again a 4-2-3-1, but formations as a number alone are often overly thought of in football - as in reality, the attacking play and approaches to goal were quite a bit different thanks to a few tweaks.

Mowbray’s preferred tactic would be to create overloads on a wing, before switching play to the other through the middle of the park. However, as teams started to double-up on our wingers, we found it difficult to break down opposition defences and this became incredibly stagnant. Direct balls either into the channel or over the top were rare, and the full-backs were instructed to be narrow almost all the time - especially Trai Hume. His role would be to cut inside and create a man advantage in midfield.

We still saw this on Saturday afternoon, but the variety and versatility in play was clear. Jack Clarke ran the by-line looking for crosses and pull-backs into Jobe & Adil Aouchiche just as often as he did cut inside. Pat Roberts no longer merely stood hugging the touchline quite deep and incredibly wide - but was man of the match in his role picking up the ball far higher up the pitch and narrower infield.

This allowed him to be far more dangerous closer to goal, and able to create quite a few attacking chances - chiefly Jobe’s (wrongly) disallowed goal, his run into the box to only be dragged down and was adjudged (wrongly) to have not been fouled, and then the chance when Adil Aouchiche hit the post in the second half.

Niall Huggins and Hume changed their games slightly too and were providing more support to their wingers, overlapping far more often than prior. The cut-in and narrow overload is a powerful tactic, but when a full-back is versatile - otherwise we become too predictable.

Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

In general, we played far more on the front foot - more direct and looking for Jobe who excelled as a striker. Intriguingly, Dodds, Jobe himself, and his brother Jude have all mentioned that they all consider Jobe a striker this calendar year. On the evidence so far this season, he is both our best performer in this role and our top scorer. We played 31 long balls and crosses during the game - more than in the Millwall and Huddersfield games combined.

Mowbray’s brand of tika-taka football is scintillating when it is good - but we need to be more pragmatic at times, and we did that on Saturday. WBA had only conceded 19 goals in the league before the match, the third-best in the league. They are miserly and in Kipre/Bartley, have two powerhouses at the back aerially. Playing more direct does not mean we smash it up to Jobe (he only won 25% of his aerial duels), but just that we simply are a bigger threat on the transition and are not as predictable.

Small tweaks were necessary, and this proved to be the way through in the end with each goal coming from a cross and a quick counter.

Off the ball, we looked more aggressive. West Brom struggled against sides who have a low PPDA (they lost against both Leicester & Southampton as well as John Eustace’s Birmingham side), and from the outset, we pressed Alex Palmer and the two central defenders very effectively. Even from goal kicks, you would see all five of Jobe, Clarke, Roberts, Aouchiche, and Dan Neil within 25 yards of their goal.

The idea was to rely on Dan Ballard & Luke O’Nien winning the aerial battle against Josh Maja (they did) and exposing their weakness on the ball at CB. Bartley and Kipre have completed the least progressive passes of all central defenders in the league with 100 minutes or more. If you press them high, they give the ball away in threatening positions. This came true with the goal, if in a slightly different situation than you would expect.

Sunderland vs Huddersfield Town Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Dodds almost certainly will not get the job full-time, and I am not even sure he wants the job. He is a coach’s coach. But with how important he is behind the scenes and to the club in general, I’m delighted his game here went better than the last time he was in interim charge. Dodds is an essential cog in the system in play with his keen eye to develop youth. I mean, look no further than the current best player in world football as proof.

I was impressed by his changes at half-time, tweaking the formation slightly. After the game he mentioned that a few needed to go “back-to-basics” and I believe he referenced Pierre Ekwah and Neil. Ekwah gave the ball away far too often in the first half and looked quite sluggish in general. However, Dodds seemed to move him deeper in the second half in a more traditional six role, with Neil and Aouchiche deployed as two attacking eights. This allowed us to have almost total control of the game, in a typically Sunderland manner. Ekwah did far better as a water carrier in midfield, always making himself available for the defenders.

Then, the sub to bring on Pritchard at just the right time was inspired. He should probably be starting more games - his experience, vision, and general technical ability in tight spaces are so crucial. Yet, whenever he comes on as a substitute in the second half, his impact on the game is so strong - it makes it sometimes hard to start him.

Overall, Dodds won't get the job - but he has shown us all why he is so highly thought of. Those few tweaks Mowbray refused to carry out have potentially cost him his job. As did his comments immediately after the game last week. It was clear the writing was on the wall then, and in truth, the club probably should’ve replaced him with Francesco Farioli in the summer as they wanted - but imagine the uproar had that happened. But I think we can all probably agree, Mowbray was a victim of both his own success last season, but also his own stubbornness and obstinance this season.


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