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Durham v Sunderland - Barclays FA Women’s Championship

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Sunderland Women’s rotations and attacking strategies!

“The tactical acumen demonstrated during 2023/2024 has been fascinating to watch, and it’s clear that the methods being implemented by the coaching staff are paying dividends on the pitch”, writes Charlotte Patterson.

Photo by Stu Forster - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

How does a team try to break through and create scoring opportunities as the ball enters the final third?

Consider the central midfield tandem: one player moves and the other takes over, although this isn’t exclusive to players that occupy similar positions.

The idea is straightforward, as players switch places to obtain the upper hand in certain areas and to ensure there are no gaps or holes to exploit.

It’s not unusual to see Jessica Brown moving into central midfield or to see Jenna Dear or Katie Kitching taking up a defensive midfield role. When one of the full backs pushes up to occupy the space left in midfield, the other will move infield and take up a position there.

With enough players around, the plan is to counter-press and recover possession of the ball.

Sunderland Women are exciting to watch because of our mobility and ability to play something similar to ‘Total Football’. We use these rotations to our advantage offensively, giving opposing defenders difficulty marking and picking up players in the final third.

The reason that Liz Ejupi is so dangerous is that if she’s marked, it means that Kitching or Mary McAteer are in space. You’ll see how this concept is woven into our tactical philosophies and that it plays a significant part in how the Lasses perform on the pitch.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Henry Browne - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Sunderland’s main strategy is to move the ball down the wings in order to make use of our speedy wide players.

We have four attacking players that can play both wide and centrally, and although we’re not a team that counter attacks naturally, we have the ability to do so.

Our attackers are versatile enough to perform a range of roles, and even though they’re experts in the positions to which they’ve been assigned, they can all perform a variety of tasks and take on new responsibilities. The team can fool the opposition and score goals by doing this, as it allows us to complete positional rotations.

We generally use the wide areas to give our central players more time to get into the box.

It’s been mentioned previously that we rely heavily on effective off-the-ball movements to create space and opportunities, and it makes sense, given that we have some technically talented forwards.

The plan is for one of the full backs and wingers to locate a favourable crossing position for the forwards inside the box, once they’ve moved into the final third. As a result, we have a three or four player advantage because we have the striker, offensive midfielder, and frequently the opposing winger or central midfielder making a run as well.

With the midfielder’s late surge from deep, we have the element of surprise and unpredictable playmaking, and since Ejupi is skilled both in the air and on the ground, the standard cross can be either floated or whipped in.

Occasionally, you’ll see the attacking midfielder in the half-space, with the winger overlapping and the full back in a narrow position whilst in possession.

The attacking midfielder will come across the box to meet an inevitable cross when the ball is played into the winger’s path, and Jessica Brown’s attacking prowess and ability to make timely runs make her a more probable candidate for an advanced role.

Sunderland Women v Durham Cestria Ladies - Adobe Women’s FA Cup Third Round Photo by Nigel Roddis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

We’ve also witnessed the shared accountability of the attacking and striking departments this season.

Whereas Kitching uses her skill, speed, and low centre of gravity, Ejupi is the main focal point and makes the most of her vertical movements in the final third.

As a facilitator, Kitching hopes to make far more use of players like Ejupi and Dear in order to create goalscoring opportunities. However, we’ve also had to play more centrally and adjust slightly, depending on the opposition.

With the help of McAteer and Rouse’s inward movements and Ejupi’s incredible strength and hold up play, they’re able to give Kitching additional central passing choices to execute some exceptional passages of play.

In possession, we typically play in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but we could also switch to a 4-1-2-1-2 in order to gain much more central coverage and make more use of the full backs’ width.

The ultimate objective remains the same - using overloads and rotations to get players into the box for crosses and cutbacks, and we have alternative means of getting forward should the opponent not afford us the luxury of being able to play a passing game.

This involves using our deeper central midfield players, such as Dear and Fenton, to play long balls over the top and counter attack, and it also demonstrates how resourceful we can be in our attacks and build up play.

Since the beginning of the season, the team’s attacking principles have remained unchanged and with good reason, as it’s been working.

We’ve been able to maintain a solid shape when the opposition has possession, thanks to the systems the club has put in place. It’s limited the opposition’s passing options and forced them to either go long or direct into midfield.

As the most advanced player on the pitch, Ejupi is one of the main agents of pressure, and our entire pressing tactic revolves around committing two to three players in an overload to regain possession and trap opponents.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Henry Browne - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

So, when do they press? The opponent playing through midfield during their build up or losing it in the transition are the triggers.

When play reaches the midfield, we begin pressing, first through the player who’s closest to them. Usually this is Dear or Kitching (following Ejupi), although occasionally McAteer, Rouse, Brown, or Ede will be there to initiate the press.

The goal of a heavily pressurised method is to force the opposition into a misdirected pass and to cause panic which leads to an error, or to recover possession through a tackle or interception, and two to three players are typically close to the ball carrier.

The tactical acumen demonstrated by Sunderland during the 2023/2024 season so far has been refreshing and fascinating to watch.

Even for those who are overtly familiar with the technical intricacies and nuances of the game, it’s clear that the methods and positional rotations being implemented by the coaching staff are paying dividends on the pitch.


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