Tony Mowbray changed his team for the game against Huddersfield, partially due to the suspension of Dennis Cirkin and the unfortunate injury to Edouard Michut that Mowbray had alluded to in his pre-match press conference. Sunderland very much needed to win this game. Therefore, Mowbray went with a far more expansive and attacking 4-1-4-1 formation that he reverted to in the final 30 minutes of the game against Birmingham at the weekend and ultimately paid dividends.
Luke O’Nien slotted into the back four as he had done previously, and Joe Gelhardt came back in for the injured Michut. As a result, Dan Neil was tasked with operating as a single pivot in the midfield, something which the 21-year-old has struggled with this season due to his lack of senior minutes playing in the role.
Warnock set up in his usually defensively solid 3-5-2, which more than often turned into a back five with the wingbacks dropping tight into a solid low block against Sunderland.
Huddersfield have averaged little over 23% possession away from home under Warnock, with his mentality very much that of keeping it tight at the back with chances coming in transition when opposition teams turn the ball over high in their half. Warnock opted for natural athleticism and physical presence over technical ability, something which shouldn’t come as a surprise for the association with Warnock’s sides and came as a real clash of playing styles as the game unfolded.
While in possession of the ball, Sunderland were playing with Pritchard and Roberts operating more as roaming playmakers ahead of Neil, whose job was very much to protect the back four and recycle possession whenever Sunderland regained the ball.
Mowbray interestingly tried to allow the Huddersfield defenders much more time on the ball than they typically would expect, inviting the Terriers to push forward more and create more options within the half-space for Roberts and Pritchard to act quickly on the counter.
This was demonstrated perfectly with the opening goal as both Amad and Gelhardt made continuous diagonal runs back towards their own goal to drag the Huddersfield defenders higher up the pitch allowing space to open in behind.
Following a short interchange of tackles, Pritchard quickly pushed the ball forward to Amad, who’d occupied the space created by the Huddersfield back line. Amad then swept a perfect ball into the path of Gelhardt, who squared his body to force the defender to open up and drilled it early through his legs into the bottom corner from just outside the 18-yard line leaving Vaclik in the Terrier’s goal rooted to his spot.
As the second half began, Sunderland continued with the same game plan, something which in hindsight, may have been the un-doing of Mowbray’s men.
As Huddersfield pressed for an equaliser, Pritchard and Roberts saw progressively less space to operate in and Huddersfield continued to employ a high press up until the final whistle.
Out of Possession
Sunderland’s out-of-possession shape saw Mowbray switch to a 4-4-2, with Pritchard dropping into midfield to help Dan Neil and Roberts tucking in narrow to support Gelhardt with his pressing duties. Once the natural rest defence for Sunderland had been formed, Huddersfield looked far less of a threat and forced numerous hit-and-hope crosses launched into the grasp of Patterson.
As for many of Sunderland’s goals conceded this season, weaknesses were exploited in transition after being dispossessed in the Huddersfield half. Without the safety of a true central midfielder in the absence of Edouard Michut, Dan Neil was often left exposed against the breaking midfielders and was overrun on the counterattack.
Pritchard, as versatile as he has been in Mowbray’s team, couldn’t track runners and match the physicality of Huddersfield. It showed on the hour mark as Josh Koroma was able to snatch the ball in the centre circle and charge 25 yards unchallenged across the pitch before releasing a deflected strike past Patterson in the Sunderland goal.
With nobody to screen the additional runners, Neil was left alone and caught flat-footed, demonstrating in an instance that having Pritchard and Roberts in advanced positions ultimately hurt Sunderland out of possession in the balance of the game.
All things considered, Dan Neil still played a good game despite being left exposed whenever Sunderland lost the ball. He was ultimately asked to play in a role unfamiliar to him, and as a result, his own attacking threat was also nullified.
He still managed 48 carries throughout the game, which was the third highest in the side – the only worrying sign was that none of these were progressive carries, something we’ve become accustomed to seeing when Neil has a midfield partner to operate with.
Sunderland fans may feel that Mowbray had gotten the wrong game plan going into the game; however, ultimately, the first half worked in Sunderland’s favour. Questions may well be asked as to whether introducing Pierre Ekwah before the Huddersfield equaliser would have removed some of the pressure on Neil and made Sunderland more secure on the counter.
However, ultimately, it’s a lesson learned for Mowbray that his strongest side is still one that contains two true holding midfielders in a double pivot rather than just one. With three games remaining and nine crucial points still to play for, we can expect to see Mowbray’s usual 4-2-3-1 system being deployed again in this Sunday’s fixture against West Bromwich Albion.