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Sunderland looked to make amends for their disappointing showing against Huddersfield on Wednesday by storming the capital and bouncing back against an underperforming Millwall side at The Den.
As expected, Millwall made the game scrappy and Sunderland had to battle just to come away with a point after a first half Kevin Nisbet goal gave the home side the lead. A Jack Clarke penalty managed to bail Sunderland out for not the first time this season and bigger questions need to be asked about how this young side is struggling to deal with opposition low blocks.
Millwall changed their usual lineup seen under Joe Edwards and switched to a 4-4-2 making 5 changes to the side that lost to Ipswich. Kevin Nisbet, George Honeyman, Leonard, Mitchell & Billy Mitchell coming into the Starting XI. It was clear the plan was to make the game scrappy and use the low-block shape to smother Sunderland out of the game.
In what turned out to be Mowbray’s final game for Sunderland he made several changes with Pierre Ekwah, Abdoullah Ba, Niall Huggins and Mason Burstow all coming back into the side after the midweek defeat to Huddersfield. Mowbray kept his 4-1-4-1 formation that he’s been utilising throughout his tenure for this game.
Elephant in the room
Following the somewhat surprising, but inevitable dismissal of Tony Mowbray on Monday evening, Sunderland fans will be left wondering where or why it all went wrong for Uncle Tony but the proof can be evidenced within the display seen down at the Den on Saturday.
Last season Tony Mowbray was able to surprise teams with Sunderland’s electric transitional play on the counter-attack by using young and dynamic attackers to his advantage. With the turn of the new season, Sunderland required an evolution into a more possession-focused side in order to stake their claim as a top championship side. The problem with this, lies in the fact that Sunderland have really struggled against low-blocks this season when they’re handed possession and asked to break down two tight blocks of four, all compacted within the 18-yard line.
As can be seen above, Sunderland have transitioned into a much slower and more intricate sequence of passing as teams set up Low-Blocks, but with no clear patterns of play this slower tempo causes Sunderland to look toothless and devoid of ideas at times.
On more than one occasion last season, Mowbray commended his attacking players by stating;
Whilst on the transition, it’s a more than acceptable comment to make given the natural creative flair of Jack Clarke & Patrick Roberts among others, however when teams sit deep, double up and don’t allow creative players space to operate, these fluid attacking movements result to predictable outcomes.
When teams operate in a Low-Block against Sunderland, they squeeze the space wide players have to operate into essentially a 5x10 yard gap along the touchline. Wingers are then presented with two options, either dribble inside into a crowd of bodies in a congested penalty area or attack down the line against two defenders. Without an overlapping fullback to support, wingers are too often shoved to the byline with no space to operate.
Evidence in action
Millwall demonstrated this to a T, with Abdoullah Ba receiving the ball on the right wing and despite completing 11/15 passes, the majority of which were backwards after realising he was being forced to cut back inside and drop the ball back off to his teammates, slowing the tempo and resetting the play.
In addition to this, the lack of attacking creativity can also be seen from the passing maps above. Both Luke O’Nien & Trai Hume were trying to take advantage of the long diagonal ball to Jack Clarke. There’s no denying that this switch to Jack works, but when it’s constantly resorted to it becomes predictable for opposition defenders and results in little success.
Despite Sunderland seemingly generating overwhelming large xG statistics over their opponents this season, doing so in 14/19 games they’ve played. Goals are becoming hard to come by, especially in the forward department.
However, this xG figure can often be misleading as Sunderland are accumulating numerous ‘low quality’ opportunities in games, such as long distance shots from Midfielders and frustrated efforts from inverted wingers cutting in and shooting into a crowd of bodies.
Many questions have been asked about Sunderland’s forward line, with 4 strikers struggling to buy a goal and the closest any one of them has gotten so far is the foot of the post.
Despite many fans labelling the young attackers as not up to scratch, the real issue lies with the chance creation for the strikers in question. Sunderland’s four strikers have only had a combined total of 32/310 of the team’s shots this season.
This comes full circle when you reference Mowbray’s earlier quote about attacking structure. By lacking a clear set of attacking patterns of play, Sunderland would struggle to get the best strikers involved in play and therefore fingers start to be aimed more towards the coaching than the strikers themselves.
Mason Burstow only managed 21 touches during his 56 minutes on the pitch against Millwall, to put into perspective Anthony Patterson had 28.
Ultimately, Mowbray’s system of attacking fluidity works wonders in a counter-attacking system however with the transition into a more ball-dominant side, Sunderland’s attackers now have the flair thanks to Mowbray, but now probably need the affluent and articulate coaching of another manager to get them firing at a top-6 level into the second half of the season.