Sunderland Review

Steve Bruce lost Darren Bent to Aston Villa this week and Daniel Welbeck to injury, but arguably it helped to define his team selection and he reaped the benefits. Ian Holloway will be happy with the way the game ended, but will be hoping that injuries picked up don’t affect his side over the coming games.

Setting up

Sunderland made space hard to come by in the middle of the pitch, Malbranque sitting narrow and out of possession Richardson dropped back in to midfield.

From a formation point of view Blackpool set out in their normal 4-3-3, but Sunderland resembled more of a 4-5-1 out of possession with Kieran Richardson breaking from midfield when in possession of the ball to join Asamoah Gyan up front. Out of possession Sunderland were narrow in midfield, little width was used as Steed Malbranque edged in from the left. In losing Darren Bent this week Steve Bruce was forced in to setting up this way, arguably had he had the same squad at his disposal as the last time these two sides met then he’d possibly have gone 4-4-2 and potentially given control of the centre to Blackpool.

The simple way to effectiveness

Sunderland came with a simple and clear game plan;

  1. Crowd the midfield
  2. Press Blackpool high up the pitch
  3. Attack quick and direct when in possession

It is often the simplest plans that draw the most success and Sunderland carried out theirs to perfection. Each player worked hard to hassle Blackpool players in possession of the ball and in particular this served two purposes. To break up Blackpool’s passing rhythm in midfield and to stop Blackpool playing out from the back. As can be seen below, Zenden and Henderson were told to press Blackpool when they were in possession of the ball in the deep. Often this is where Blackpool build their attacks from, not this time, as Adam and other Blackpool players were given little space to work in early on in the game.

Three Sunderland players ensuring that Blackpool couldn't pass it out from the back. This pressure was applied directly after keeper distribution.
Here you can see that Blackpool are suffocated on the edge of their box. Adam has no space to move in to or many passing options.
Adam has the ball, but two on rushing Sunderland players are making sure he can't find any space to make a play.

The work that Sunderland did in closing down the space pushed Blackpool’s normally reliable passing down to a completion rate of 71%. Sunderland did see less of the ball, but as with any possession in football, it is what you do with it that counts, their pass completion came in at 63%.

The strongest survive

Sunderland are an athletic and strong team and certainly some strong challenges affected Blackpool and their plans for the day. A boot to the nose of Neil Eardley meant he was off the pitch when they scored and an injury to Richard Kingson meant a substitution had to be used to bring on Paul Rachubka. Added to this Stephen Crainey went of with what appeared to be a twisted knee. You can see below how Sunderland instinctively attacked the space left by Eardley being off the pitch. If anything Craig Cathcart (20) perhaps should have checked his position as he is very close to Ian Evatt here and has been sucked in to going where the ball is.

Arguably, had Eardley been on the pitch then he'd assume the position indicated by the tangerine line and Richardson wouldn't have had anywhere to run in to.

Shining Lights

This doesn’t detract from the excellent game Sunderland played and in particular Jordan Henderson stood out, assisting in breaking up Blackpool’s midfield winning all 4 of his duels, making two interceptions and spreading the play when he had the ball as well as making intelligent untracked runs in to the wide right position (first half) to deliver some quality crosses. Also Bolo Zenden was excellent in breaking up play in the centre of midfield winning 7 out of 8 of his duels.


Blackpool did get to grips with Sunderland at times in the first half and once their realised that Sunderland were over committing men in the press, they then exploited the space. However, Craig Gordon had a superb game and once the game went 2-0 Sunderland were happy to drop deeper and ride out whatever Blackpool could throw at them in the hope of catching Blackpool on the counter. Below you can see what happened when Blackpool chipped the ball over the Sunderland midfield. It left Charlie Adam with a full 30 yards to run in to exposing their back line. Only good keeping from Craig Gordon stopped this from being 1-1.

All the Sunderland midfield have committed to attack and press in the final third. A simple 'out ball' leaves Adam with a free run to the back line.

Lack of frontal cohesive movement

Blackpool lacked the focal point of DJ Campbell, often the player that will drop deeper and work hard to win ball as well as making intelligent runs. Gary Taylor-Fletcher didn’t offer the same movement and mobility upfront as Campbell, he doesn’t make forward runs or peel off the shoulder of defenders, he likes to drop to receive the ball before giving and going. This meant that Charlie Adam had little to aim for by way of runners in to the channels or in behind the defence.

Matty Phillips offered some dynamic runs from wider positions, but more often than not he failed to beat his man losing 4 out of 5 take ons. Added to this Luke Varney was very static at times and when he did manage to cut in he failed to make a positive contribution, losing all eight of his duels. In the final third Varney came up short with only 3 of his passes being successful in that area and two of those were out wide and went backwards. Blackpool found it hard to penetrate the Sunderland defence when running with the ball. Look at the Chalkboard to show how attacks around the box broke down as Blackpool lost the take on. Virtually the only time they did break the line, they won a penalty.

Blackpool trying to take Sunderland players on a losing 17 times, look how many are in the final third.

Moving On

Ian Holloway will hope that his team learn from this display and find their rhythm early against Manchester United on Tuesday night as a strong performance could help to set up this next stretch of games where Blackpool will hope to nudge closer to safety. He’ll also hope that the injuries sustained today, don’t have any major impact on his squad. Steve Bruce will be happy that he won and won via a simple and effective game plan.

11 thoughts on “Sunderland Review”

  1. Good post.

    The second Richardson goal was a bit of an interesting one. I don’t know if you remember but after the Liverpool game, Ollie commented that he was surprised Evatt was so far up the field for the second goal – there’d been a corner or something, the ball got knocked back up the field and then Eardley played it back into the box, whereupon Evatt headed it back across to Campbell for the goal.

    Evatt did the same thing against Sunderland and it cost Blackpool. That whole play started off a deadball from near centrefield. Adam played it down the field, looking for an Evatt header and Evatt lost out. The ball came back up field and, ultimately, ended up at Adam’s feet. The pressure was on him and he didn’t do a great job of getting rid of it – I’ve got an ice hockey background rather than a soccer one and in hockey, when the attacking team is forechecking like that, the coaches would be screaming to put the puck off the glass and out.

    As Sunderland was then approaching the box, you had Adam who’d kind of lost position on the Sunderland player, drawing Cathcart across a little bit. Crainey seemed to be a bit late to realize that Evatt was still up field, and was late to close the gap. The pass went through and the ball was in the net. You can just see Evatt show up at the top of the box when the ball goes in.

    I’d be interested to know what Ollie made of that. Based on his comments after the Liverpool game, he expects Evatt to scamper back after dead ball plays into the box. Evatt didn’t do it there and it led directly to the goal.

    1. Great analysis and thanks for taking the time to read the review.

      Defensively the second goal was poorly dealt with.

      Phase 1 – Cathcart didn’t really deal with the long ball from Zenden which lead to phase 2
      Phase 2 – Adam spent too much time fending off Gyan and Malbranque stole in to take the ball
      Phase 3 – Malbranque broke down the left unchallenged and had plenty of space to slide the ball in for Richardson (cracking finish as well)

      As much as Evatt never got back, Eardley was goal side of Malbranque when the ball was cleared and never tracked the run back.

      It’s fair to say that both goals show how Blackpool are still learning to play at this higher level. Teams will counter quickly, knowing that when the game is in a transition phase (when attacks break down mainly) space will be found. For Blackpool to move up and improve then they need to learn to cover space on the retreat, whether that is through Evatt getting back or someone else taking up a better cover position.

      1. Eardley covering for Evatt in the situations where balls are being played into the box and we want Evatt’s size up front for headers is probably what Holloway intends. That would explain why he was back here and again on the Liverpool goal, where he was able to play it back into the box for Evatt. With the right and left backs generally being permitted to play up the field, it probably explains why he’s been further back on these plays, to cover for Evatt being used up front.

        Tough game for Eardley and Cathcart – I just watched the first goal again and Cathcart really needs to be more aware, although he’s presumably used to having Eardley defending the back door (when Eardley isn’t upfield). There’s a school of thought in hockey that young defencemen kill you and that people don’t really learn the position until their mid to late twenties. Is there something similar in soccer?

        1. Not sure there is conclusive evidence to show that age has relevance to capability in defence. Think some managers would like to have a more experienced player in the defensive line whilst others would be happy to play youngsters there. Defensive mistakes can be made by a player of any age, if anything the older the player is his experience might lead him to handle the mistake differently. An player may have ensured a foul was committed to stop the play after his mistake whilst another might ride it out in a more honest fashion. Think regardless of age with Blackpool, it’s learning process for everyone.

  2. Excellent article about a very enjoyable football match (certainbly from a Sunderland supporters point of view). Blackpools season so far has been so refreshing for everyone in the Premier and there are certainly more than three worse sides a the moment. Good luck guys.

  3. Interesting read and very intelligently written. I agree the loss of DB and injuries forced Steve Bruce’s hands to a certain extent. I was worried about the loss of Bent on the squad, our ability to score goals and was a little anxious about this game due to Blackpool’s form this season.

    While we played well and the tactics paid off, we still need at least another striker and a creative midfielder to maintain our top 10 finish. Good luck to Blackpool – hope you don’t lose the lad Adam – especially for the peanuts being offered presently !

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