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Durham v Sunderland - Barclays FA Women’s Championship

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Talking Tactics: The formations and systems used by Sunderland Women

As we continue our Lasses’ ‘talking tactics’ series, Charlotte Patterson looks at the formations and systems utilised by Mel Reay and her players, and why they’ve been so successful

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

When examining the tactical concepts used by Sunderland Women, it’s essential to analyse the components that come together to form a cohesive attacking unit.

Over the last few years, we’ve largely adhered to the same approach, making minor adjustments as players have come and gone. As such, the ‘Sunderland style’ has generally remained unchanged, with the exception of changes in personnel and tactical adaptability when facing better teams.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Henry Browne - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Build up play, middle third transitions and final third movements are the three main components.

Each of the three phases features distinct movements and triggers that link players from various areas of the pitch to produce fluid movement from one end to the other. With that in mind, it’s vital to analyse the entire formation and system to better understand how it all fits together and contributes to our attacking and defensive mechanics.

Although Sunderland have historically employed a range of formations, they all essentially aimed to achieve very similar goals.

Although it’s typically a 4-2-3-1 formation on paper, it can also take the form of a 4-4-1-1, a 4-1-4-1, a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2 during a game. The goal is to maintain structural principles for both attacking and defensive scenarios while achieving a variable shape.

The basis of Sunderland’s ball progression strategy has always been possession-based.

We’re an organised and structured side that allows for flexibility in moving between positions from behind. Although the team’s build up strategies are process-oriented, they’re also adaptable enough to switch things up if the traditional paths are blocked- by taking a more direct approach, for example.

Essentially, the key is to advance the ball up the pitch whilst simultaneously drawing pressure and shifting players into different places to make room, particularly when facing rigid and compact opponents.

Sunderland Ladies v London City Lionesses - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Jess Hornby - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Teams that can effectively utilise mid to low blocks to thwart Sunderland’s offensive prowess are where we see the team follow the principles dictated by the coaching staff.

Sunderland’s first line of attack will usually come from Claudia Moan, who’ll look to pass the ball to one of the two centre backs.

In certain situations, a defensive midfielder (primarily Natasha Fenton) will slot in between the two centre backs, who push out wide and act as a third central defender in build up play. This gives us a numerical advantage, an extra option for build up play, and is the catalyst for both full backs to push up.

Regardless, going wide and finding the full backs is the primary objective of Brianna Westrup, Amy Goddard, or Fenton once the ball reaches them.

The nearside central midfielder moves into the full back position when the defender pushes up. This prevents Sunderland from leaving openings at the back and shields them from any turnovers of possession.

Next, the goalkeeper will attempt to locate one of the two centre halves to initiate the move.

Durham v Sunderland - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Stu Forster - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

After the pass is made, the defensive midfielder is asked to slot in to cover the gaps left by one of the nearside full backs as they begin to venture forward. Other players in that area of the pitch then start to move as a result.

In the final third, Sunderland appear to want to play the ball into wide areas, bring it back inside into midfield, and then send it out again for the wide player to dash into the box or to cross it. In order to facilitate simpler ball progression, the goal is to establish numerical superiority in the wide areas.

The importance of integrating the team’s many players in all phases of play is emphasised, and it’s worth examining the role that Sunderland’s full backs play in our system.

They’re the primary outlet for the ball during build ups and they play a crucial role in it. To be able to move quickly between these positions and comprehend the mechanics of build-up and transition, they must possess tactical intelligence.

Similarly, if there isn’t a cutback or inside pass available in the final third, they offer an additional attacking option with their crossing.

These characteristics, which have been demonstrated in their internal development over the years, make up the ideal Sunderland full back, and Jessica Brown epitomises this.

She’s a master of attacking and defending but she also possesses the quickness to make up for any mistakes and the tactical acumen to comprehend complex in-game situations and triggers.

Elsewhere, Grace Ede, a former winger, and Louise Griffiths are two outstanding examples of what the coaching staff look for in their full backs.

Southampton FC v Sunderland Ladies - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Steve Bardens - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Liz Ejupi is a strong and selfless centre forward who can be a ‘fox in the box’ and a dominant force in the air, giving full backs a fixed target to aim for.

Similarly to Brown, Ede used to play as a left winger and central midfielder before setting the standard at left back. She and Brown are both youthful and aggressive with the speed and untapped ability to develop into skilled players.

Sunderland’s build up play hinges on the players surrounding them making off-the-ball movements when we’re in possession of the ball as it reaches midfield, and this is where we use a third player and triangles to create passing lanes.

The second or third midfielder will frequently come across to become the third man in support and carry out passing exchanges to play around the opposing players on that side once the full back is in a position to advance.

Given that we have an incredibly talented number ten, Katie Kitching is crucial because of her movement, which not only provides an additional passing option but also makes her an effective player on the ball in confined spaces, since she can evade the opposition’s press in midfield.

Jenna Dear’s skill is also key in these areas, meaning that we can move the ball efficiently into the half-spaces where we try to attack, aided by the offensive prowess of the full backs and astute movement from our strikers.

Sunderland Women v Durham Cestria Ladies - Adobe Women’s FA Cup Third Round Photo by Nigel Roddis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

We’ll then play passes for runners such as Dear, McAteer, Brown, and Mollie Rouse into half-spaces or wide areas.

One question is how Sunderland Women can look to integrate players into the midfield, and they’re able to become much more agile both in and out of possession because of a flexible structure.

To provide more midfield presence, the 4-2-3-1 will change to a 3-5-2, 4-3-3, or another variation. We have enough players to implement ball progression, as one winger will tuck into midfield while the other practically becomes a centre forward in a matter of seconds.

Defenders, midfielders and attackers all participate in the ball’s collective movement, which guarantees that there are enough players available to handle any situation.

They all want to be in space to advance the play and to be available to fill in different places when the spaces become free, which is seen in a lot of their movements across midfield. All of this is a component of their rotational positions.



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