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Following a tactical tweak at the weekend, Mike Dodds looked to make it two from two and really stamp his authority on the Interim Head Coach role in his second stint at the helm for Sunderland. Leeds were coming to the Stadium of Light on the back of a seven game unbeaten run and with arguably the most devastating frontline in the league, Dodds had a tough job on his hands.
Leeds lined up as you’d expect to see this season, opting for a 4-2-3-1 using Joel Piroe the Dutch Marksman in his now-cemented No.10 role and the triquetra of James, Rutter & Summerville ahead of him, the latter being in some fine form of late.
With no natural left back, Farke opted for Djed Spence and young academy product Archie Gray slotted in at right back for the Yorkshiremen.
In a somewhat surprising team selection, I had a little head scratch when arriving at the ground, Dodds opted to make several changes from Saturday by bringing in Seelt, Ba and the super-sub Alex Pritchard. Sunderland opted to deploy in a 3-4-2-1 shape, with Jobe dropping deeper into a No.8 role and Alex Pritchard leading the press as a False-9.
Following the line-up announcement, it was very clear early on that Dodds had a plan to stifle the attacking threat of Leeds by limiting the space they had to run with the ball.
Leeds are devastating on the transition, with Joel Piroe acting as a distribution hub for the three supporting forwards all with electric pace and the ability to dribble at speed.
By switching to a back five, Sunderland were able to still maintain a mid-block but also man-mark Leeds frontmen and compact the grass between players to prevent them attacking into space.
Jobe & Neil were both given man-marking responsibilities on Kamara & Ampadu respectively, Jobe’s discipline to mark Kamara was particularly impressive as he was able to stop Leeds most progressive ball carrier from making the moves he’d normally perform in the midfield area.
As a result, Leeds were forced to play the ball out-wide and allowed Trai Hume and Nial Huggins to get stuck into tackles in their preferred defensive position, the former having now made 44 successful tackles this season, 8 more than anyone else in the division.
Dan Ballard took the responsibility of stopping Rutter from receiving the ball to feet, Huggins was tasked with following Dan James’ studs and Jenson Seelt decided to cast a shadow over Summerville whenever he stepped foot in the Sunderland half.
The advantage of leaving Piroe open was that whenever he touched the ball he acted as the defensive pressing trigger for Hume & O’Nien to both step into midfield and smother his attempts at quick distribution.
Sunderland have ranked 3rd for average possession in the Championship this season however only mustered around 32%, their lowest of the season by far due to opting to a much more disciplined defensive display.
The above passing map showcases the team structure and the importance of using both Neil & Jobe to relieve pressure when we did retain possession, both having above 90% pass accuracy in the process.
One player whose name won’t receive many plaudits is Alex Pritchard - the diminutive forward chipped in with another impressive assist (3 in 135 minutes) and was asked to lead the press for Sunderland rather than act as an out and out striker, similarly to the way he was used under Mowbray last season.
His added experience was invaluable, constant communication with his teammates not to get dragged out of position played a huge role in Sunderland’s defensive discipline.
The defensive actions map which can be seen below demonstrates the sheer ground Pritchard covered for his teammates.
Sunderland have really struggled to keep clean sheets over the last few weeks and probably feel disappointed at some of the goals they have conceded.
Mike Dodds summed this up brilliantly stating that we’d only allowed 5 shots on target in our last two games, and prior to Trai Hume’s clearance in the 89th minute held Leeds to an xG of 0.4.
The defensive solidity and routine of going back to basics was clearly on show on Tuesday night.
Jobe the ‘Thoroughbred’
After having a goal wrongfully chalked off at the weekend against West Brom, Jobe was yet again in the right place to finish off a Sunderland move which ultimately was the only goal of the game. Despite starting the game in a much deeper role, Jobe finished as the Sunderland player with the highest overall xG at 0.54, even more interestingly though, he now leads Sunderland players this season in overall individual xG as well.
Sunderland’s Overall Performance
The above graphic from Opta shows relative positions based upon how teams perform in games versus their eventual outcome, with Sunderland underperforming given their statistical data produced this season.
To stats merchants, it doesn’t come as a surprise but it does highlight that the football we play is effective and does warrant a higher position than they currently reside.
With a new head coach on the horizon, and if there’s truth in the reports that man of Football Manager folklore Will Still takes the coaching role up at the Stadium of Light, we can expect more tactically astute displays like the one put on by Mike Dodds against Leeds to collect another valuable three points along with an additional Ex-Premier League scalp to this young side’s collection.