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Sunderland v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship

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Talking Tactics: Breaking down Sunderland’s gameplan against Bristol City

Two of the most in-form and attractive on the eye-test teams shared points at the SoL on Saturday in an ultimately frustrating but impressive - in isolation - result. However, both play a very similar brand of football and their league position belies their quality.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Tony Mowbray returned to his “weekend” team on Saturday, with Amad, Dan Neil and Edouard Michut replacing Abdoullah Ba, Alex Pritchard and Luke O’Nien. He lined the Lads up in a 4-2-3-1 in the usual style, looking to create down the wings.

In truth, Sunderland and Bristol City are actually very similar: both like to keep possession and work from deep in medium-length passing sequences, have full backs who are just as likely to step into central midfield as they are make a run down the by-line, a pivot of a defensively-minded player in the six-role to cover alongside a ball-playing midfielder and an attacking quartet based around the 10 drifting wide to create overlaps out wide while the central striker looks to either drop deep or stretch with runs in behind, very rarely leaving the central third of the pitch vertically.

In this match, only 23% of Sunderland’s attacking play came through the middle, compared to Bristol's 26%. Both sides gave away a lot of free kicks and both pressed quite high forcing a number of effective turnovers.

In truth, there is very little between the sides and arguably have two of the most youthful, attacking, and exciting to-watch squads in the division. Had Nigel Pearson’s men not started off the season on a poor run with horrendous defensive performances they’d probably not be far off the playoffs.

Because 77% and 74% of each side’s attacking output came from down the wing, it’s no surprise that the two game-changing moments came from Jack Clarke & Jay Dasilva.

Unlike against QPR in midweek, when we looked to expose either channel around the full-back, the main threat from Sunderland this week was on the transition: moving at pace into the space vacated by George Tanner, Mark Sykes, Anis Mehmeti, and Cameron Pring out wide.

While Matty James and Joe Williams were superbly disciplined when sitting deep, their lack of general pace was exposed by our attacking quartet on a number of occasions, mainly on Clarke’s goal and Gelhardt’s big chances.

In credit to Bristol, they are probably the first team in months who have stood up to our sustained pressure and came out with us having barely cut them open.

34 touches inside the opponent's box is our lowest figure since we spent the majority of the Swansea home game down to ten and on the back foot (but is still respectably high compared to many league rivals).

Anis Mehmeti created the most opportunities and had the most shots on goal from the left wing, and is a familiar enemy of us having scored against us during his time at Wycombe in League One.

He was Bristol’s most potent attacking threat & Alex Scott constantly looked to his side to create overlaps and counter on the wing, like how we do with Amad and Roberts on the right.

However, Mark Sykes would also interestingly join in their approach play, while lone striker Sam Bell would drift out wide:

This curious approach play is something not often seen at this level, with most opponents preferring to work their way around the defence. This caused Neil & Michut some issues in covering Scott’s movement early on before Mogga seemingly ordered the former to cover Scott like a shadow for the next hour.

Alongside this, Michut was released to dictate play as the opposition pivot sat very deep and allowed us to be in the ascendancy.

Joe Gelhardt’s tireless running and link-up play from deep was a very effective part of our attacking weapon on the day. His lay off then subsequent run off the shoulder and pass out wide to Clarke was instrumental in the winger receiving the ball 30 yards higher than he would’ve had the Leeds loanee had not been involved in the move:

While protecting Gelhardt as he is getting his match fitness and general fitness levels after so long having limited minutes at Leeds is crucial, after he was withdrawn we lost our focal point in attack and invited more pressure than necessary. This gamer was really our general approach, far different from the tactical tweaks that led to the victory over QPR: playing a flat 4-4-2 with two wide forwards looking to make runs into the channels to provide a way through the opposition.

In such a closely matched affair, it took just a mistake and a brilliant finish from Jack Clarke to make a difference. Porfligacy in front of goal on our end meant the game was not out of sight earlier, but from a tactical perspective, there was nothing overtly unusual from the game.

However, I would just like to reserve some praise for Edouard Michut in midfield, as he is taking real strides in his role as a deep-lying midfielder and once again dictated midfield against a tough, experienced, and talented Bristol trio. It wasn’t too long ago that their captain, Matty James, was a member of a Leicester squad that won the Premier League - although he was injured for the majority of that particular campaign. But Michut’s all-round game is developing and his ability to mix it up physically and get in some hard tackles against seasoned campaigners with a huge physical advantage just shows his talent and drive perfectly well. He made one or two defence-splitting passes through the central third and hopefully won't be long until Joe Gelhardt up top can get on the end of one.

In hindsight, it was probably a fair result between two very evenly-matched and tactically-alike sides. While it was a frustrating way to concede a goal from a penalty so late in the game, considering their run of form it is probably a good result and keeps up our current run of just one single loss in the last 11 games.


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