Some thoughts on Newcastle 0-3 Sunderland

Sunderland's third consecutive Tyne-Wear derby win

Gus Poyet was without Lee Cattermole through injury so brought in new signing Leon Bridcutt to anchor the midfield in Sunderland's standard 4-3-3. Jack Colback and Ki played the shuttling box-to-box roles in the middle of midfield.

Alan Pardew played a 4-2-3-1 in Newcastle's first match since the official departure of Yohan Cababye to PSG. Vurnon Anita and Cheick Tiote played at the base of midfield with Tiote sitting deeper in midfield when Newcastle were in possession. Hatem Ben Arfa started in the #10 role off of striker Shola Ameobi. Sammy Ameobi played on the left side of the attacking midfield three, Moussa Sissoko played on the right. Steven Taylor continued to fill in at center back alongside Mike Williamson for the injured Fabricio Coloccini.

The 4-3-3 vs. 4-2-3-1 matchup meant each side's three center midfielders had an obvious direct opponent. Colback lined up with Anita, Ki with Tiote and Bridcutt with Ben Arfa. Sunderland defended with a 4-1-4-1 shape- Bridcutt sat just in front of the back four and tracked the movement of Ben Arfa between the lines. Newcastle defended with two banks of four with Ben Arfa staying high up the pitch alongside Shola Ameobi when Sunderland were in possession. In effect Sunderland defended with 5 across the midfield, Newcastle with 4. The extra defender in midfield meant Sunderland were able to crowd the center of the pitch and limit the space for Ben Arfa in the gaps. However, it also meant Altidore was isolated up front when Poyet's side won the ball back. The American therefore had an important responsibility to provide the initial outlet pass forward and to hold the ball up long enough to bring his midfielders into play. Although Altidore's hold up play hasn't always been strong enough this season, he performed the task excellently today, challenging Newcastle's center backs and winning fouls. Had he not been as strong keeping the ball and allowed Newcastle to quickly win the ball back, Sunderland would have pinned deep in their own half for large portions of the half.

The Sunderland midfield trio was excellent. Bridcutt slowed slowed counters and fouled intelligently when it was necessary while Ki and Colback pressed Tiote and Anita and midfield, denying them time to pick their heads up and find penetrating passes forward. In attack, Ki and Colback were able to sprint in behind the two deep Newcastle midfielders on the break. Colback in particular had a terrific game on both sides of the ball. He showed a tireless work rate to close down the ball in midfield then break forward to join in attacks when Sunderland recovered the ball. He sprinted in behind Anita in midfield to set up Sunderland's second goal. For the third he tackled the ball from Tiote then burst forward in front of Borini to receive a pass and finish the move on his own. He pressed high up the field in the second half to win a tackle just outside Newcastle's penalty area to set up Altidore with a 1 v. 1 with Tim Krul but the striker couldn't finish. Colback finished the game with an impressive 4 tackles and 3 interceptions.

 Newcastle introduced Luuk De Jong for Sammy Ameobi at halftime and went to 4-4-2. They played a bit more direct and looked to get on the end of Ameobi knock downs. Defensively they pressed higher up the pitch and the contest became more stretched. Sunderland looked a consistent threat on the counter, taking advantage of space in behind the two Newcastle midfielders when they broke forward.

Newcastle desperately missed the creativity Cabaye brings to midfield. The've failed to score in their first two games without the Frenchman. Newcastle's other center midfield options Sissoko, Tiote, Anita and Marveaux all rely more on their physical attributes than technique and creativity. Ben Arfa is a creative and technical player who can play as a #10 but he's less consistent than Cabaye and, for all his flair, he often fails to provide substance.

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.

Tactical Analysis: Sunderland 3-4 Chelsea

Chelsea rode a world class performance from Eden Hazard to a 4-3 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. This was a highly entertaining but strange contest. That it produced 7 goals is more a reflection of Hazard's individual class and some poor defending from both sides than of a frantic end to end game. The 7 total goals game from just 8 total shots on target.

Jose Mourinho set Chelsea out in a 4-2-3-1 with Ramires and Lampard anchoring midfield. Hazard was on the left of the attacking midfield three while Willian and Juan Mata rotated between the right side and the #10 spot. Cesar Azpilicueta was again given the nod over Ashley Cole at left back.

Gus Poyet opted for a 4-3-3. Ki sat just in front of the back four in midfield while Jack Colback and Craig Gardner played the midfield shuttling roles. Fabio Borini was on the left side of the front three, Emanuele Giaccherini was on the right and Jozy Altidore was given the nod as the lone striker.

The 4-2-3-1 vs. 4-3-3 matchup meant that each side's center midfielders had a direct opponent. Gardner was matched up against Lampard, Colback against Ramires and Ki against Mata or Willian depending on who was playing as the center attacking midfielder at the time. Both sides stuck to these matchups defensively. When Chelsea were in possession Gardner and Colback stepped out to press Lampard and Ramires respectively while Ki sat in behind picking up the attacking center midfielder, giving Sunderland a 4-1-4-1 defensive shape.

Sunderland defend 4-1-4-1
 Defensively, the triangle was flipped for Chelsea so that their shape off the ball was 4-4-1-1. Ramires and Lampard picked up the more advanced Colback and Gardner while Willian stayed tight to the deeper lying Ki.

Chelsea defend 4-4-1-1.
The formations meant neither side had a spare holding midfielder. Ki was 1 v. 1 with Willian, Lampard and Ramires were 2 v. 2 with Gardner and Colback. With both sets of holding midfielders occupied marking an opponent, this opened up space for both teams' wide attacking players to tuck inside in the space between the outside backs and the holding midfielders. The figure below shows the danger areas where Borini and Giaccherini could drift into to find space in front of Chelsea's back four. By drifting into these areas, they forced Chelsea's outside backs into a difficult decision. If Ivanovic and Azpilicueta allowed them to drift in field unmarked, they'd have space to receive the ball in an incredibly dangerous area between Chelsea's defensive lines. If instead Ivanovic and Azpilicueta followed them in to the center of the pitch, it opened up space down the flank for overlapping runs from Sunderland's own outside backs.

Space between the lines for Sunderland wide forwards.
Sunderland's goal to make it 2-2 was a great example of Azpilicueta being forced into making the latter decision. Giaccherini drifted in to a dangerous position in field between the defensive lines and Azpilicueta was dragged inside to mark him. Bardsley made an overlapping run down the wing into the now vacant space forcing Hazard into a tackle that went out of play for a corner Sunderland would subsequently score from. Below is a screen grab of the build up leading to the corner.

Build up to Sunderland's second goal.
Similarly, Sunderland's lack of a spare holding midfielder created opportunities for Chelsea's wide men to be dangerous drifting from the channels into more narrow positions. With Ki matched up directly with Willian, Hazard and Mata could drift inside to create 1 v. 3 overloads on Ki as shown in the graphic below.

Chelsea look to overload key.
The key then for Sunderland was to keep their midfield triangle and the two center backs very compact so that the space in the middle of the pitch was too congested for Chelsea to be dangerous. They did a decent job of this task. Aside from Chelsea's goal that stemmed from a corner, the visitors managed 5 other shots, none of which were on target and 4 of which were speculative efforts outside the 18.

With Sunderland doing well to keep the space compact through the middle, Hazard made a subtle change to his positioning. Rather than tucking inside to receive the ball, he stayed in wide areas and looked to take on Bardsley and dribble in field when he got the ball in the channels and shoot with his stronger right foot. This was the key tactical feature of the game. Again, the fact Sunderland did not have a spare holding midfielder was important. Because Ki had his own man marking responsibility he could not slide over to the right to offer Bardsley support when Hazard began making his move inside. Twice Hazard scored by running past Bardsley inside and getting the space to take on a shot. For the first goal he was able to beat the Sunderland right back with the dribble, for the second he performed a 1-2 with Lampard.

The other key feature of the contest was Chelsea's surprising inability to clear their lines from set pieces. All three of Sunderland's goals stemmed from dead ball scenarios. Altidore's opener came when the Blues failed to clear a Dossena free kick. More troubling, the Black Cats second and third goals resulted when Chelsea allowed cornersto bounce inside of 12 yards.

Di Canio's 4-4-2 allows Arsenal to overwhelm Sunderland in midfield

Paolo Di Canio's decision to field a 4-4-2 enabled Arsenal to overwhelm Sunderland in the middle of midfield and were it not for some wasteful finishing from the Gunners in the first half they'd have had the game won by halftime.

Di Canio played both Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher up front while David Vaughan and Ki Sung-Yueng played a two man center midfield. Arsene Wenger played his normal 4-2-3-1 which meant Arsenal had a man advantage in the middle of the pitch. Mathieu Flamini was the deepest of the three center midfielders with Aaron Ramsey operating as a box-to-box shuttler and Mesut Ozil in the hole behind Olivier Giroud. With Santi Cazorla out with an ankle injury, Jack Wilshere played on the left side of Arsenal's attacking midfield three.

After Arsenal's 1-0 win in the North London Derby, Michael Cox highlighted how Cazorla had tucked inside from his starting position on the left, in effect playing as a fourth center midfielder. With Tottenham employing a 4-3-3, Cazorla tucking inside gave Arsenal a 4 v. 3 advantage in the center of the pitch. Against Tottenham's physically imposing midfield trio of Moussa Dembele, Paulinho and Etienne Capoue, the extra man in midfield enabled Arsenal to compete in central areas.

Yesterday Arsenal used a similar strategy, this time with Wilshere tucking in from the left. But rather than competing 4 v. 3 as they had against Tottenham's imposing center midfielders, they were 4 v. 2 against Vaughan and Ki, two players with nowhere near the athleticism of Dembele, Paulinho and Capoue.

Passes received by Jack Wilshere vs. Sunderland. He started on the left but was given the freedom to come inside to flood the middle of the pitch
Arsenal were therefore able to overwhelm Sunderland in the middle of the park. Flamini, Ramsey, Ozil and Wilshere were simply able to pass around Vaughan and Ki, allowing Arsenal to keep possession high up the pitch. Ozil and Ramsey received deserved praise for their excellent performances but Sunderland's two man midfield made it easy for them to find the space to pick out penetrating passes. By halftime Arsenal had completed 92 passes in the attacking third to Sunderland's 22.

Overall Passing Statistics: Sunderland vs. Arsenal
It should have been job done for Arsenal by halftime but Walcott missed two 1 v. 1 chances to make it 2-0. They would almost prove costly. Laurent Koscielny's needless 48th minute challenge on Adam Johnson in the box allowed halftime substitute Craig Gardner to level from the spot. Arsenal continued to control possession high up the pitch in the second half but, chasing a winner, the game became more open and Sunderland had their opportunities on the break. Had Walcott taken one of his first half chances Arsenal could have been more cautious in the second half and looked to play on the break as they've done this season after taking leads. Ramsey would provide a stunning game winner but the contest turned out to be a bit tighter than it should have been. Sunderland were right to feel aggrieved when referee Martin Atkinson failed to allow an advantage that led to what appeared to be a Sunderland equalizer.

Still, on the balance of play Arsenal were much the better team and looked comfortable for most of the contest. Ozil's performance suggested he won't need much transitioning into the squad or life in the Premier League and Ramsey looks to be developing into a top class box-to-box midfielder.

Future opponents of Arsenal should take note of just how much they can dominate a game when up against just two opposition center midfielders. With their gifted passers and tendency to flood the middle of the park, a 4-4-2 is unlikely to be a winning strategy against this Arsenal side.

Thoughts: Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland

Arsenal failed to make their 70% possession count as Sunderland put in a gritty defensive performance to emerge from the Emirates with a deserved 0-0 draw. It was a pretty straightforward tactical battle; Sunderland defended with two lines of four to restrict the space Arsenal had to play in while the Gunners controlled possession and looked to use quick passing to find gaps in the defense. Here are some of the more interesting developments and observations I noticed.
  • The Wearsiders were content to get all 11 men behind the ball and force Arsenal to patiently pick them apart. They looked to counter through Sessegnon, McClean and Campbell and did so with some success early on. However, as the game wore on Arsenal closed off their outlet pass and Sunderland offered little going forward the final 65 minutes of the game. 
  • With Sunderland dropping deep in two banks of four to restrict the space Arsenal had to play in, it was important for the Gunners to find space in between the lines to unlock the compact defense. New signing Santi Cazorla did this with considerable success early on in the match, moving into pockets of space between the Sunderland back four and midfield. However, Lee Cattermole began getting tight on Cazorla and the Spanish midfielder found it more difficult to find the time for a cutting pass as the game went on. He still found ways to get on the ball, often coming deeper to receive it. He played a brilliant ball to put fellow new signing Olivier Giroud through on goal but the Frenchman, who had recently come on to replace Podolski at center forward, scuffed his effort wide. 
  • Despite starting as the loan center forward, Podolski often came very deep into the midfield to receive the ball. It’s understandable why he was doing this since the the central areas around the box were so crowded. However, it left Arsenal looking like they were playing a 4-6-0. The problem with that was Arsenal didn’t have anyone to stretch the Sunderland defense vertically and create space for Cazorla between the Sunderland back four and midfield. Giroud stayed closer to the Sunderland center backs which created more space for Cazorla and second half substitute Aaron Ramsey to float into. Ramsey got a decent look at goal from 18 yards out but his effort was extremely poor.
  • In the first half Arsenal looked more dangerous when they were able to win possession from the Sunderland midfield and break quickly towards goal with 3 or 4 passes. They struggled when Sunderland were able to get all 10 men behind the ball. I thought at halftime it might be a good idea for Arsenal to concede some possession to the Sunderland midfield and press a little deeper towards the midfield line, the thinking being that they could push Sunderland out of their defensive shell opening up space behind the Black Cats’ midfield to counter into with speed. Indeed, Arsenal seemed to use this strategy and the game opened up very slightly in the middle stages of the second half. However, when Arsenal were able to break they were missing the final ball or and the presence of a poaching center forward in the box to put the ball in the net.