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Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg

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Talking Tactics: Breaking down Sunderland’s gameplan in the first leg v Luton - what did we do?

How did Tony Mowbray smother Luton Town’s aerial dominance in a tight Playoff Semi-Final first leg at the Stadium of Light?

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Following Sunderland’s surprise entrance into the playoffs, the season wasn’t quite over for Mowbray’s men and the lads lined up for one final time at the Stadium of Light for Sunderland’s first leg of the Playoff Semi-Final against Luton Town.

With injuries to all of Sunderland’s first team Centre backs, fans were left head-scratching as the initial team news was released not knowing who would be positioning where across the Sunderland back line.


Sunderland set up in what most outlets are considering a 4-2-3-1 from the outset, but with Sunderland then matching Luton out of possession with wingbacks, operating in a 3-5-2 with Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke acting as unorthodox wingbacks.

Sunderland operated with a makeshift back three with Luke O’Nien, Trai Hume and Lynden Gooch operating as impromptu centre backs.

Pierre Ekwah and Dan Neil retained their positions in midfield and Alex Pritchard was brought in to replace the injured Dennis Cirkin operating as a floating midfielder behind Joe Gelhardt and Amad Diallo completing the First XI.

Lineups courtesy of Flashscores


There was no hiding the fact that Sunderland lacked any real aerial presence heading into this tie and it was well publicised that Rob Edwards’ side were going to take full advantage of this, aiming to bombard Sunderland’s penalty area with floated crosses and rely on picking up the loose balls and second phases of play. Despite conceding from Luton’s first real attack of the game, Mowbray managed this incredibly well throughout the game. By placing Clarke and Roberts in deep positions and essentially man-marking both Doughty and Drameh, Sunderland were able to prevent Luton from distributing the ball out wide and limit the crossing opportunities of Luton down to set piece delivery.

Exploiting high turnovers and swift transitions were essential in Mowbray’s tactical setup as by moving the ball through the centre and then out wide with pace, Sunderland were able to buy enough time for the wingbacks to spring forward and affect the game in their favoured positions on the pitch. The majority of Sunderland build up came through the combination of Ball Progression from Pierre Ekwah, and then Amad Diallo dropping deep into the right channel to collect the ball as can be seen from the graphic below.

Sunderland v Luton Player Heat Map
Photo taken from @Mclachbot on Twitter.


In possession, Sunderland’s sturdy back five swiftly transitioned to a 3-5-2 with Clarke and Roberts aiming to pin Luton’s width as far back as possible, Diallo transitioned out to the wide right to create Overloads with Roberts and Gelhardt remained centrally to place pressure on Tom Lockyer. Pritchard on the other hand, drifted more across to the left and provided support for Clarke, pinning Bell and Doughty into their own final third and allowed Ekwah to progress the ball into the channels as can be seen from Sunderland’s build up whilst in possession.

Sunderland’s Passing Progression
Photo from @MclachBot on Twitter

Up until Diallo’s equaliser, Sunderland struggled to maintain possession however following the break, things turned a corner for the lads in red and white. With Dan Neil hampered by his early booking, the second half saw Pierre Ekwah grow in the game, breaking up play in the midfield and progressing the ball with pace on numerous occasions past Nakamba and Mpanzu who had also been cautioned. The match analytics of Pierre Ekwah demonstrated his presence in all areas of the pitch with only 3 of his passes being incomplete and his recoveries demonstrating the epitome of a true box-to-box number eight in the middle for Sunderland. Furthermore, Ekwah won 5/7 of his aerial duels showcasing that despite Sunderland’s lack of height, they were able to continuously battle for headers and second balls in the midfield.

Pierre Ekwah v Luton Town
Photo Credit @SAFCDataAnalytics on Twitter

Interestingly, Sunderland attempt around 24 dribbles per game this season according to advanced analytics, a league high. In this game they attempted 48 dribbles completing 20. Those numbers are staggering when you consider how many technical players Tony Mowbray has at his disposal and showcase how technically gifted our players are in possession of the football.

Out of Possession

Without the ball, Sunderland looked to limit Luton’s ability to distribute the ball out wide and exploit the space down the flanks meaning their only aerial presence could come in the form of long balls up from the back and set-pieces. By compacting the middle of pitch, Morris and Adebayo were unable to make runs into the channels and therefore whenever they received a long ball they were smothered in the second phase of play by swarming Sunderland defenders. Employing this tactic did however, open Sunderland up to quick transitions if either of Luton’s strikers were able to make a good first contact as seen through a cheap foul conceded by O’Nien in the opening stages, although Sunderland were able to combat their lack of height through this and managed to see the game out well with Adebayo and Morris both failing to register any meaningful attempts on goal in the second half.

In Conclusion

As Sunderland prepare for the return leg at Kenilworth Road, fans should be expecting to see much more of an aerial bombardment from Luton Town as Rob Edwards looks to use the strengths of his Luton Side to overturn the 2-1 deficit from the first leg. With Aji Alese rumoured to have trained he may yet play a part in a similar system, allowing Gooch to return to his more familiar role at Right Wingback however I very much expect to see Mowbray operate a similar system in the return fixture. However this time, Sunderland will probably be banked more in a 5-3-2 with both wingbacks stationed in a far deeper role both in and out of possession as Sunderland look to hold on to their one goal advantage down at Kenilworth Road.

Match Stats
Photo taken from @MclachBot on Twitter.

On This Day (9 June 2007): Midfielder turns down Sunderland return – and heads to Bolton instead


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