Saturday, January 18, 2014

Tactical Analysis: Sunderland 2-2 Southampton

Sunderland clawed their way back to earn a 2-2 draw after falling two goals behind in a first half dominated by the visiting Saints. Mauricio Pochettino's side controlled the tempo in the opening half with nearly 70% possession and created a slew of decent chances. However, despite being far less fluid than the visitors in the final third, Sunderland fought back in the second half by pressing Southampton further up the pitch and hurrying them in possession.

Pochettino used a sort of fusion 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 with Steven Davis playing deeper and more narrow than a typical right sided attacking midfielder. Adam Lallana was in the #10 spot behind Rickie Lambert. Victor Wanyama was unable to recover from a calf injury in time so Jack Cork was given the nod alongside Morgan Schneiderlin in midfield.

Gus Poyet opted for his standard 4-3-3. Lee Cattermole sat in front of the back four with Seb Larsson and Ki on either side of him as midfield shuttlers. Jozy Altidore was given the start at striker ahead of Steven Fletcher.

From the start of the match Sunderland defended in a 4-1-4-1 shape with Cattermole sitting in between the defensive and midfield four tracking the movement of Lallana in between the lines. The key to Southampton's first half possession dominance was the positioning of Steven Davis. Although he was listed as the right sided player in Southampton's attacking midfield three, he actually took up a deep and narrow position alongside Schneiderlin and Cork. This meant that when Ki and Larsson tried to press Cork and Schneiderlin respectively, Southampton always had Davis free in midfield to receive a pass and as a result Southampton were able to keep attacking moves going without being forced into hitting long hopeful balls forward. The graphic below shows where Davis received passes in the first half and all of his first half passes. Noticed he received passes throughout the deep midfield zone as Southampton's spare midfielder, not just on the right side.

Southampton's goals were a result of their possession dominance. Sunderland were pinned in their own half and when they did win the ball back they were too deep to find an outlet ball and maintain a bit of possession of their own. With all three Sunderland midfielders and the two wide forwards forced to defend deep in their own half, the only option was to lump the ball long towards Altidore when they won possession. He was an isolated figure up front and needed to hold the ball up long enough to bring the midfield runners into play. It was always going to be a difficult and thankless task but the American didn't perform it well enough given his size and strength. Too often his first touch and passing accuracy let him down. He completed just 2 of 9 passes in the attacking third in the first half.

For the opener the Black Cats failed to clear their lines in their own penalty area as they defended frantically. The ball fell for Jay Rodriguez at the top of the box and he dispatched his effort brilliantly. Rodriguez probably should have doubled his tally moments later when Lambert played him through but Vitto Mannone saved his effort towards the back post. When the Saints eventually did get their second through an excellently taken Jose Fonte volley off a corner the lead was no more than they deserved.

Pochettino therefore would have been bitterly disappointed to have conceded so quickly after on Sunderland's only sniff of a chance in the first half (they finished the half with just two shots, the goal the only one on target). Johnson did well to spot Borini's diagonal outside to inside run. Calum Chambers appeared to have done well to recover into a good position to get a block on but Borini cut his shot back across goal into the far corner.

The goal appeared to ignite Poyet's side and the home crowd going into the second half. Although Southampton created dangerous opportunities on the break in the opening 15 minutes of the half, Sunderland offered more of a threat themselves going forward. The key to Sunderland getting back into the contest was their work rate in pressing Southampton in midfield. The visitors didn't enjoy the same time on the ball that they did in the first half and as a result lost possession deeper in midfield. By winning the ball back higher up the pitch, Sunderland had the advantage of both having more players in positions to get forward and Southampton having less time to recover into a decent defensive shape. The additions of Jack Colback and Craig Gardner in the midfield in place of Cattermole and Larsson gave Poyet's side some fresh legs and added energy. The graphics below shows Sunderland winning tackles and interceptions in much more advanced areas in the second half.

Sunderland tackles: first half (left) vs. second half (right)

Sunderland interceptions: first half (left) vs. second half (right)
Johnson's equalizer probably should have been saved by Arthur Boruc but it came at a time when Sunderland were on the ascendency thanks to their pressing.

The contest could roughly be described as one between two very different styles of play. Sunderland's focus was on organization, work rate and quick vertical moves forward while Southampton emphasized possession and patient build up from the back. The visitors were more fluid in attack- their play in the first half was highly impressive- but Poyet's side deserve credit for the commitment they showed after going behind. Whether passion and work rate will be enough to keep them in the Premier League remains to be seen.

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