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Friday 25 October 2013

Talking tactics: How Poyet can salvage Sunderland's season

Adrian Clarke looks at what the head coach should focus on at the Stadium of Light

  • Pic 1: Ki passes & Gardner's passes v Man Utd. (Blue: successful, red: unsuccessful)

  • Pic 2: Interceptions v Newcastle 2012/13 (left) and v West Brom (Di Canio's final match)

  • Pic 3: Sunderland's formation v Swansea (left) and suggested for Newcastle

New Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet suffered a baptism of fire on his Barclays Premier League debut last weekend, losing 4-0 away to Swansea City. However, with a pivotal derby clash at home to Newcastle United on the horizon, there is no time for the bottom-of-the-table Black Cats to dwell on that disappointment.

Collecting one point from their opening eight matches, there is work to be done at the Stadium of Light if top-flight status is to be preserved, so this week we take a closer look at the areas which require the most attention.

More creativity needed going forward

Carving open goalscoring opportunities has not come easily for the Wearsiders this season. In fact no one has produced fewer efforts on target in the Barclays Premier League than the 19 they have mustered so far. Little wonder then, that only Stoke City have hit the back of the net less times.

Sunderland's invention relies heavily on winger Adam Johnson. The England international can feel satisfied with his output of 53 crosses and 17 key passes so far, but in central areas the front men are receiving precious little of the same support and service.

While new signing Ki Sung-Yeung is a lovely passer of the ball, the bulk of central midfielders inherited by Poyet and his coaching staff do not specialise in creative spark and variation, as demonstrated in Table 1 below. Neat, tidy and functional, too few of the personnel available to the Black Cats boss have the pace or desire to make bursts into the box and pull their markers out of position. Often opting for the safer pass out wide, there is a reluctance to slide clever balls into dangerous areas too, as you can see in Image 1 above.

If Sunderland's strikers are to make an impact this season, Poyet must encourage more risk-taking and drive from the middle of the park.

  Passing Accuracy In Opposition Half Chances Created
Assists Shots On Target Goals
Craig Gardner
2 0 4 2
Ki Sung-Yeung
81.33% 3 0 1 0
David Vaughan
73.20% 0 0 0 0
Seb Larsson 64% 7 1 0 0
Lee Cattermole 74.40% 2 0 0 0
Charalampos Mavrias 62% 2 0 0 0

Set-pieces and defensive stability

The goals-against column makes unpleasant reading for Sunderland. Ranked 18th when it comes to allowing shots to rain in on Kieran Westwood's goal (44 to date), the leakage of 20 goals at 2.5 per game is worrying.

Poyet's first task will be to organise his players better from set-pieces. Under Paolo di Canio the side man-marked from corners and free-kicks, but caretaker Kevin Ball and now the Uruguayan have instructed zonal marking instead. Neither has worked well, and with the players often looking confused or flat-footed, seven goals have been shipped from dead ball situations – a Barclays Premier League high. It is vital they pick one clear method, and work hard on eliminating the problems they've endured.

While Martin O'Neill was at the helm, Sunderland were sometimes accused of lacking ambition, but you could rarely fault the side's resilience and organisation without the ball. In that respect, standards have dropped in recent months.

They still tackle and compete ferociously (see Table 2 below), but as a unit they're not as well-drilled as they were last season. Even under the attack-minded Di Canio they constantly plugged gaps to win the ball back and counterattack in the last derby against Newcastle United, as outlined in Image 2 above, but in recent times that side of their game has deteriorated.

Retreating behind the ball when out of possession and protecting that key central region in front of the centre-backs is an area they can improve on significantly. With more discipline and structure the side will concede fewer chances in dangerous positions.

Table 2: Sunderland - without the ball at home
Tackles per game 23.5 (2nd in Premier League)
Interceptions per game 8.5 (19th)
Fouls per game
13 (2nd)
Shots faced in central zone 77% (2nd)

Find a balance that works

What is Sunderland's best system? Nobody really knows.

O'Neill's favoured 4-5-1 was replaced by a significantly more positive (and riskier) 4-4-2 that often morphed into a 4-2-4 under the now-departed Di Canio, while the new Black Cats boss is known to favour a 4-3-3 of sorts. It is time now to develop a formation that best suits the side, and where possible, persist with it. (See Image 3 above for a counter-attacking alternative)

Eight different defenders have been used so far this term, among a total of 23 players who have tasted league action for the Wearsiders. Consistency of selection, as well as the system, should bring more stability and confidence.

Since the departure of Stephane Sessegnon there has also been an imbalance to the side's attacking options. While Italian new boy Emanuele Giaccherini has looked lively in a floating role on the right (he is Sunderland's highest-ranked player in the EA Sports Player Performance Index, at 153rd) most forays forward are now drawn to Johnson on the left, and this makes them a little predictable. The use of a more natural right winger would provide better options and balance.

As explained earlier in my column Poyet's immediate focus has to be strengthening his attacking threat down the centre of the pitch. This is the area from which most goals are scored, and his new side have struggled for quite some time to discover the most effective way to create chances there. (See Table 3 below)

TABLE 3: Sunderland's offensive patterns
  Left side
Right side
Attack routes 2013/14 43% (1st in PL)
25% (19th)
32% (20th)
Shot areas 2013/14
22% (4th)
54% (20th)
24% (2nd)
Attack routes 2012/13 38% (3rd) 25% (19th) 37% (11th)
Shot areas 2012/13 21% (3rd) 58% (20th) 21% (2nd)

Final thought

Southampton are the only top-flight side that has ever avoided relegation after picking up one point from a possible 24 at the outset of a campaign, but all is not lost for Sunderland.

Poyet will in time preach his patient, passing philosophy, but in the short term if he can prioritise delivering consistent, clear and disciplined instructions that suit his players, there is still time to mount a comeback. A hard-earned victory over their local rivals this Sunday would be an ideal way to start the fight.

Sunderland host Newcastle United in the Barclays Premier League on 27 October. For more details about that match, just click on this Matchday Live link.

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke is a former professional footballer who has played at all levels from Premier League down to non-League
  • Since retiring he has become a written and broadcast journalist for magazines, TV shows and for Arsenal
  • In his regular Talking Tactics column, this week he looks at the issues facing new Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet