Steven Schumacher opted to make five changes from the side that narrowly lost to Tony Mowbray’s Birmingham in the previous game week. Sunderland faithful Lynden Gooch returned at right back along with a full change of the front three for the Potters.
Stoke lined up in a 4-3-3 with Bae dropping into midfield to support Cundle & Burger.
In what was yet another curveball in the Mick Beale era we saw two changes from the defeat to Hull, with Abdoullah Ba returning to the lineup in place of the self-exiled Pritchard and Mason Burstow gaining a start ahead of Ruysn for the Wearsiders.
Beale also opted for a more natural 4-3-3 with Jobe & Ekwah operating either side of Dan Neil, who dropped into a slightly deeper role for this game.
Following the dismal display against Hull, Mick Beale opted to switch things up against Stoke and reverted to a more traditional 4-3-3 system like what you’d expect from a lone-striker setup.
Dan Neil sat in a deeper role (similar to how he did last season) as a singular pivot with Jobe operating to his left and Ekwah to his right in more orthodox roaming 8’s as box-to-box midfielders.
By both supporting runners operating on opposite sides to their preferred foot, Sunderland created the opportunity to play reverse passes back inside with relative ease and provided a second dimension of ‘inverted runs’ separate from the wingers which could be highlighted through Ekwah’s goal.
The natural spacing created from operating as a midfield three also didn’t detract away from Dan Neil’s ability to control games and stamp his authority completing 43/49 passes and 6/8 ground duels (including a 100% tackle success rate).
For the first time since Beale’s introduction, the midfield trio seemed to operate in a much more cohesive manner and by Neil sacrificing some of his progressive carrying, removed the shackles from both Jobe & Ekwah to put their attacking skillsets to better use, both linking up with their respective winger counterparts very well throughout the game.
The biggest disappointment for me in the Hull game was the lack of natural width which was created by shoehorning Pritchard onto the right wing, something which Beale clearly wanted to address against Stoke.
Looking at the passing network below it’s clear to see a far more balanced approach to play, with the switch to a single pivot providing Jobe & Ekwah freedom to spread wider and created much better passing angles and opportunities for transitional play.
Tinkering in Training
Post-match comments from both Beale and Burstow highlighted some of the tweaks the team made going into the game against Stoke, with crossing in particular being one of the main talking points.
Despite being synonymous for his inverted wing play, Clarke attempted 8 crosses in this match (one of which created the opening goal) which is more than he’s recorded in any other game this season.
As Burstow alluded to in his interview, Clarke generates so much attention when cutting inside that sometimes driving to the by-line and flashing a ball across goal on a more frequent basis creates a better opportunity as defenders have become accustomed to him doing the opposite.
Clarke made Lynden Gooch’s return to the Stadium of Light a one to forget, tormenting the former Sunderland man both inside and out with a 7/8 dribble success rate in the process.
Interestingly Sunderland also attempted more long-balls in this game than their average as well as increased their average pass length by 2m, taking a more pragmatic approach at times when they needed to get the ball up the pitch with pace.
Clarke was 4/5, Hume 3/5 and Seelt 3/7 and made up 14% of Sunderland’s overall passing data (compared to a 7% average throughout the season).
Burstow Buries It
Mason Burstow was rewarded with a start following good work in training this week and it really showed. Although he had a quiet game in terms of chances, Burstow linked the ball up well with 21 touches which despite being low was double last week, and therefore an improvement but also got a goal to show for it.
Albeit the strike was a stereotypical striker’s goal, let’s hope this is the start of a scoring streak for the young forward. He put himself about against Ben Wilmot and provided Sunderland with some much-needed vertical spacing at the top end of the pitch.
Special mention to Abdoullah Ba for his man of the match performance in this one, he provided great width at times for Sunderland creating four chances in the process and even tucked in to allow Jenson Seelt to stretch his legs on the overlap at times.
His hold-up play and distribution led to his first goal, and his quick thinking led to both his assists also completing 18/23 passes in the process.
With tough games against Middlesborough and Plymouth on the horizon before a slightly more relaxed set of fixtures, Sunderland need to use this result as a springboard to help begin building form ahead of the final 15-game stretch of the season.
Despite being more open to the counter, some of that creative spark was back in the side and that’s the one thing I was hesitant Beale was trying to remove.
Having found more of a balance Beale will look for another 3 points this weekend away at the Riverside.