1.Selection and Personnel
Injury wise, Fellaini joined Jack Rodwell on the sidelines meaning the Blues were without their first choice central midfield partnership. This resulted in Distin being recalled and the defensive pairing of Heitinga and Neville being asked to provide the anchor platform in midfield with Drenthe, Osman and Cahill in the offensive midfield slots behind Louis Saha.
Sunderland played more of a 4-4-1-1 with their fullbacks tucked inside and their wingers asked to provide the width with Sessegnon playing in and around Bendtner. An early injury to Bramble meant a triple positional change; O’Shea replaced him at CB, Bardsley switched to right back, Richardson left back and Colback slotted into the left midfield berth.
2.Thou Shalt not cross
Everton had more of the ball (52%) whilst Sunderland’s pass completion was superior (74% v 70%) . Sunderland have opted for a more direct approach since O’Neill’s arrival, including more of an emphasis on long balls and engineering crossing situations from wide areas. Yesterday, 22% of their passes were long (compared to our 17%).
The high defensive line we adopt does mean that opponents are kept further away from our goal and for teams who like to cross such as Stoke and Wolves lately, we have managed to pen them in their own half and minimise crossing opportunities into our box. Anybody who watched Villa under O’Neill will testify that he isn’t too bothered about possession but more focused on offensive width and getting the ball into the opposition box. In their recent win against Blackburn in the Irishman’s first game in charge, the Black Cats attempted more crosses from open play (46) than any other side in a top flight game since the 2008/9 season – this was 92% more crosses than in their previous home game against Wigan, the game which led to Bruce’s departure. Yesterday we restricted them to just 11 with only 3 reaching a red and white shirt.
Our games this season have been scrappier than previous years due mostly to our personnel being less astute in ball retention but also down to the high line we often keep and the pressing game used. Yesterday we gave away 20 free kicks – nearly double that of our hosts with Phil Neville (5) the worst offender, most of which were covering challenges for the uber offensive Baines/Drenthe left sided axis. With the highline it often leaves a great deal of space in behind and the potential for opponents to exploit us on the break. As the chalkboard (left) shows, when possession is lost this then leads to tactical fouling fouls (in red dots) when a potential breakaway situation means it is better for us to give away a free kick and suppress momentum than enable the opponent a 3 v 2 situation…as long as this doesn’t risk a potential red card. Unsurprisingly, we are ranked the 2nd most persistent foulers in the league on our travels.
4.Second Half Salvation…again!
The Blues somewhat undeservedly found themselves a goal down at half time. Both sides generally lacked incision from centre areas with no accurate through balls made from either side in the 90mins. Sessegnon looked the most likely from the Black Cats. Whilst he can be quite hit and miss – he recorded an error strewn 9 turnovers the most of any player – he does have the vision to try things and he was instrumental in the games opening goal, throwing Distin a shimmy to create space to enable him to play in Colback.
We usually don’t get going until the second half of games –we have scored the highest percentage of goals (71%) in the second half of Premier League games this season – and this was again the case here. A typically impish Osman run in which he ghosted past a couple of defenders culminated in him accidentally kicking the turf but the Premier League’s top official Howard Webb inexplicably pointed to the spot. Leighton Baines duly lashed home our 4th penalty of the season – the most of any side in the top flight.
Whilst the game was pretty uninspiring this was a decent point against a side still in the ‘new manager syndrome’ zone and given that we were missing some key players. We were compact and difficult to breakdown with Howard only having to make one save aside from the goal. Offensively we looked dangerous in the first 25 mins but ran out of ideas in a second half which Sunderland had the better of. Overall a draw was probably a fair result on the balance of play and gives us 5 points from 9 in the 3 games over Christmas which is our longest unbeaten of the season. With players coming back from injury and the additions of Donovan and others hopefully in the pipeline we should see more expansion to our play after the turn of the year when we usually kick on.