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Sunderland v Southampton - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light

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Talking Tactics: How Sunderland’s controlled aggression demolished Southampton

This was an intriguing match on paper - two teams with similar styles matching up early in the season. But in reality, Tony Mowbray’s use of a “Plan B” pays dividends.

Photo by Will Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

Tony Mowbray named an unchanged starting lineup from the 0-0 draw away to Coventry, knowing that the trip to the Sky Blues painted a perfect preparation in style for this match, if not quite as extreme. However, while the personnel didn’t change much, the style of play and aggression on show was almost the antithesis of what has been “characteristically Sunderland” since we returned to the Championship.

Again, he lined the lads up in the usual 4-2-3-1 with Jobe leading the line ahead of Dack in as the link between midfield and attack, but he was so deep at times out of possession, it looks almost like a midfield three in retrospect - designed to congest the middle of the park and limit Southampton’s ability to dominate the central thirds of the pitch - both horizontally and vertically.

This characteristic alluded to above is a possession-heavy game interweaved with the odd direct counter generally based upon diagonals out wide to take advantage of the general lack of tactical resoluteness from other Championship sides while attempting to defend against the transition - but here the formula to victory is the opposite.

Southampton is a typical Russell Martin side: intricate build-up play, aggressive (very high) pressing & huge ball retention all aimed at swamping opponents and either forcing a mistake or overwhelming a defence.

However, they have always had a soft core and their high-line can be exposed. At Southampton, this is even more the case. Both Ryan Manning and Kyle Walker-Peters are very effective attackers but quite mediocre defenders (for their level), while none of Southampton’s defensive midfield options are disciplined nor athletic enough to cover in these areas. Well, Shea Charles could be but he was inexplicably left on the bench instead of Will Smallbone and Flynn Downes.

The aim here was clear: pack the midfield, wit with two solid banks of four when Southampton is in possession in our half, be overly aggressive when they build in their own third, and counter as quickly as possible into the spaces vacated by their wingers and full-backs bombing on.

In the four games previously this season we have completed 592, 443, 562, and 481 passes respectively. Across these four games, we had 66%, 65%, 68%, and 48% possession. However, on Saturday lunchtime we only completed 198 passes with 32% possession (all according to Opta). These figures are the third-lowest at the club since Tony Mowbray became Head Coach. You can probably figure out that the two with fewer passes completed were away to Burnley and Norwich last season.

Going into the Coventry game, Mogga switched Luke and Ballard the latter to have more space, time and options to carry the ball out of defence. He does not need to take time to re-adjust and can spread play quicker - aimed at counter-attacking as quickly as possible. We often do this, but nowhere as quickly or direct.

This was explicitly to expose Southmpton’s high press. It is the most aggressive and vertically aligned in the entire league - with many defensive actions in the final 33% of their opposing half, and a PPDA of just 7 through the first four games. They are the most successful team in re-gaining the ball within 6 seconds of losing it. I.e. a very successful “gegenpress”.

Interestingly, when Southampton would sit with the ball and pass it between their defenders looking for a way through, we would sit almost in a 4-3-3, very flat. Ba, Neil and Ekwah would stand just off their midfielder’s shoulders, while Dack, Jobe and Clarke would box the midfielders in by cutting the defenders’ passing lanes into Smallbone and Downes. Later on Jewi, Rigg, Pritch and Hemir would take over from the 4 most attacking. As you can see below, there are these two clear lines:

This happened all game long, and in this situation, Pritchard harasses the ball carrier - who is forced to punt the ball up only for Ballard to head it away.

The first goal was a counter from their corner, while the other 4 all began by us stealing the ball in the final third or central band of the pitch. Then, the diags into Clarke and Ba dragged their defenders all over and created more opportunities to score - leading to 10 shots on goal from inside Saints’ own penalty area and 5 goals from even more attempts.

Russell Martin is often lauded for his team’s style of play. But honestly, if he doesn’t sort their defence out he won't make May in charge. They may look great on stats but on the eye test, it just doesn’t always hold up. All three sides he’s been Head Coach at are all just fart and no shite.

Martin’s sides generally have a soft core and if you can disrupt them and anger them they will give the ball away and leave large gaps in behind that you can expose with the tactics employed above.

We committed an average of 8 fouls a game in the championship last season and 9 this season (9, 8, 11, 7). In this match alone, we committed 20. More often than not this would be as a result of a lack of discipline - but this was controlled aggression. Every time a more dangerous player tried to create, we hounded them in packs. On top of the fouls, we completed an astronomical 33 tackles during the course of the 90 minutes.

Pierre Ekwah started 7 counter-attacks by stealing possession of an opponent in the 90 minutes, and everybody else was just as effective.

Martin himself while Swansea boss has alluded that his gameplan is all about trying to avoid exactly this type of aggression:

“For us, it is about taking as much fight out of the game as we can and controlling it with the football.”

Even after the game, he mentioned Rigg’s late goal. Had one of their players tried to Maradona spin like Jewi did, he admitted that one of our players would have “smashed straight into them”.

In a mouth-watering match of teams that generally play the same way (though one more purposeful and maybe not as intricate as the other), it was our Plan B and tactical flexibility that not just led to the victory, but absolutely dismantled a talented away side.

Martin doesn’t believe in “Plan B”, as he admitted while MK Dons boss:

“Needing a Plan B is a myth... we just need to be better at Plan A. If it doesn’t work and I get sacked, at least I get sacked doing something I believe in. I don’t get sacked regretting that I have bowed on my principles. It wasn’t a big deal to me – it was just common sense.

It helped us build a bit of a siege mentality. It was like: ‘Look, no one believes we can do this and no one wants us to be successful doing this.’ It’s the British mentality towards football. Traditionally, it’s been about rolling your sleeves and fighting but, slowly but surely, it’s changing.”

While you can admire him for sticking to his beliefs, this lack of tactical nuance and unwillingness to change will cause a myriad of problems going forward. Mogga, the rest of his backroom staff, and crucially, the players on the pitch proved last season and again at the weekend how effective and flexible we can be - and that has all the makings of a successful side.

It goes without saying that Bazunu’s mistakes in their goal led to the rout, and we did get a fair share of luck, but we made that luck and forced those mistakes.

The away side may have completed triple the amount of passes and had almost 70% of the ball, but tactically they were totally outclassed as we dominated them - without really dominating the ball itself.


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