Talking Tactics: West Bromwich Albion (A)
Following a somewhat flat midweek game against Huddersfield, Sunderland were in dire need of three points to salvage their playoff hopes against a High-flying West Brom team that hadn’t lost on home soil since October 2022.
Following news of Danny Batth’s injury midweek, Mowbray was expected to again name a makeshift defensive line without a recognised central defender to call on and rely on the willingness of his players to take on any role required of them.
At 11am, the team selection was announced and had the pundits at Sky perplexed as to how we were going to line up.
Sporting a familiar 4-2-3-1 that Tony Mowbray has been renowned for employing throughout the season, Sunderland saw Luke O’Nien and Trai Hume operating as makeshift Maldini’s in a side totally devoid of height.
The only outfield player taller than 6ft being that of Pierre Ekwah in midfield partnering Dan Neil meant that set pieces were going to be the main way West Brom were looking to attack the ball-playing defence Sunderland set up with.
West Brom set their side up in a similar formation with two holding midfielders in the shape of Yokuslu and Molumby, the former having played a fantastic campaign in the Championship this season and boasting years of experience at Celta Vigo.
West Brom had Karlan Grant starting on the wide left and the ever-experienced Ged Wallace on the opposite flank who’d caused Sunderland problems at the reverse fixture at the Stadium of Light.
Whilst Sunderland had the ball, it was clear that the 4-2-3-1 quickly morphed into a back three with Hume, O’Nien and Cirkin sitting just in front of the midfield pairing, with Gooch very much operating as a wingback on the right flank creating the width for Sunderland.
The passing map showcases a very clear distribution of space with the intention of Hume and O’Nien carrying the ball into space and Cirkin looking to create an overload behind Clarke whenever Sunderland broke forward.
After a nervy first 10 minutes, Sunderland settled into the game and often looked to create width within the half-spaces by dragging Gelhardt short and forcing the back line of West Brom to compact in with the midfield and crowd out the space, this was highlighted on numerous occasions with Gelhardt being fouled numerous times after receiving the ball on the half-way line.
Both West Brom holding midfielders saw themselves booked because of this and gave Sunderland’s midfield the freedom to carry the ball under far less pressure as the game progressed.
As the possession statistics show, Sunderland took advantage of the early bookings and controlled more of the possession in the middle third of the pitch allowing for more progressive build-up without fear of the high press West Brom are so well known for at the Hawthorns.
The unlikely hero for Sunderland came in the form of Dennis Cirkin and his tremendous display, the fullback managed to pop up with a brace despite operating in an unconventional back line, by utilising quick switches of play Sunderland were able to progress the ball on the right to allow Cirkin to creep forward in build-up and add an extra body at the back post.
By looking at Cirkin’s touch map throughout the game, it’s clear to see he operated in a far more advanced role than many expected and therefore create problems on the transition for West Brom.
Cirkin’s first goal came from patient build up and ultimately saw one wingback providing for the other as Gooch’s eventual cross was met by Cirkin who headed wonderfully past Palmer in the West Brom goal.
The second goal was perhaps a perfect illustration of how attacking in transition can be effective, but it requires players to make the correct decision when it comes to the final pass. In a move that saw Sunderland put together 16 passes prior to the goal, patience and attacking intelligence shone through with players able to create the space to progress the ball at pace before slowing down and waiting for another opportunity to present itself before switching gears once more.
By exploiting the overload in the left half-space, Cirkin was able to link up with Michut and Pritchard but due to that overload he created he was able to maraud forward unmarked before receiving the pass back form Pritchard and rifling the ball past Palmer to complete the comeback for Sunderland.
Out of Possession
Out of possession, Sunderland very much dropped back into the 4-2-3-1 as expected with Gooch becoming a more orthodox right back.
Without the ball Sunderland looked to slow down the tempo of West Brom’s attacks and limit them to set pieces or transition mistakes.
By compacting the space and ushering Grant out wide, they managed to nullify the threat of the inside forward limiting to only snapshots from distance.
Surprisingly despite the lack of aerial presence and a recognised centre back Sunderland dealt with dead balls and crosses with relative ease and saw Trai Hume with a team high of 7 aerial duels won.
I could talk for hours about the fantastic maturity and composure shown by such a young and inexperienced Sunderland side, not only in their disciplined rest defence and their willingness to stick to a game plan which ultimately paid dividends but also because of their patience in attack.
For a Sunderland side synonymous with attacking in fast transitional breaks this season, the ability to slow the game down and break teams open is something we don’t often get to witness and really shows signs of growth and development for a side high in confidence.
If it’s taught fans anything, it’s that the fastest route to goal isn’t always the most effective, nothing illustrates this more than the fact the highest xG assist numbers produced by any member of Sunderland’s XI on Sunday was Gooch at 0.57xG from the right back position.
As playoff season approaches, it’s nothing but positive signs that Sunderland are showing they can attack with yet another blade in their Swiss-army knife of attacking options.