As these two teams line up together on Tuesday, there will be some mixed emotions in both sets of supporters. For me, I am experiencing yet another feeling of disbelief as we face another former Premier League side and juggernaut of the domestic game in Sunderland. The Black Cats are a massive side to be playing League One football in terms of stature and history. Their average home attendance of the season at the Stadium of Light – 30,005 – would require five Mazuma Stadiums to house.
As for the Sunderland faithful, there may be a feeling that they really don’t belong here; they’ve stumbled into the wrong game and are politely trying to extract themselves from it.
To bring the Mackem perspective to the table, I am absolutely delighted to have the expertise of Matthew Crichton from the Roker Report, and also two Sunderland fanatics, Luke Mapstone and Cam Phillips.
What are they expecting from the game?
¨This game is a must win for Sunderland. Although we are unbeaten in four matches, we have only won two in seven and sections of the fanbase turned against Lee Johnson following consecutive thrashings against Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday.
Sunderland have been impressive at home, so I am expecting us to attack Morecambe from the off and look for a convincing victory to ease the pressure on the team and the manager.
Although we are just two points from top, Sunderland always seem close but not close enough to the promotion places and the novelty of League One has truly worn off. Anything but a victory will be problematic for Sunderland and I think travelling Morecambe fans will be able to feel the anxiety if we fail to take a lead. ¨
¨Put simply, a win. No disrespect but if we have any aspiration of finally getting promoted then we need to be consistently taking 3 points off the teams in the bottom half of the division, which often has been a contributing factor in stopping us going up in previous seasons.
However, I’m not expecting it to be easy, I’m well aware of Morecambe’s qualities on the pitch and I am expecting a tight affair, our performance levels have dropped off recently and we rarely look like dominating a game so there’s every chance of you getting something out of the game.¨
¨I’m expecting a tough game, and I’m expecting goals. We do seem to have stopped the rot after the 2 hammerings in Yorkshire but still conceded in our last 3 games. It’s teams with players like Cole Stockton who will cause us issues, he’s been magnificent this season and I would expect him to grab one against our defence.
I would expect us to score as well, an encouraging second half against Oxford was the first time in at least 6-8 games that we’ve seen us play really well. I think we will have enough to edge it at home. If we score early, it could be another Cheltenham (5 – 0 home win) if we push on and play like we can. If we don’t score early or go behind it could be a tight, cagey affair. ¨
Both sides come into this game in a run of form below average of what they’ve been achieving this season. In the last eight games, Sunderland have been averaging 1.38 points per game compared with an overall average of 1.89. Morecambe on the other hand are averaging just 0.63 points per game over the last eight games, compared to an average of one point per game for the season.
The redeeming aspect for Sunderland is that their overall home form is formidable, with 29 points picked up from a possible 35 at The Stadium of Light in League One. The Shrimps on the other hand, have picked up just seven points from a possible 35 away from The Mazuma Stadium.
However, there are some slight green shoots of optimism for the Lancastrian visitors. Across all competitions, Morecambe have now picked up three wins from six, albeit with two of those teams from lower divisions – Newport County in League Two and Buxton in the Northern Premier League.
We’re also boosted by the return from injury of League One’s leading marksman – Cole Stockton – who has 13 goals in 18 games for the season.
In our last outing against Buxton in the FA CUP, despite only winning by a single goal against a side 4 leagues lower, there were encouraging signs. We created plenty of chances, but for some poor finishing we would have won the game by a bigger margin. According to Wyscout, our expected goals were 2.76 against Buxton’s 0.29.
I believe we’ll be looking for tweaks as opposed to mass changes, sticking with either 4-3-3 or a 4-1-4-1 – dropping players a little deeper.
We’ve now started with the same back four in the last four games – Ryan McLaughlin at right back, Jamaican international Greg Leigh at left back with Anthony O´Connor and Ryan Delaney pairing at centre back. I don’t envisage this changing at all as Stephen Robinson (´Robbo´) looks to keep continuity in defence.
33 year old experienced goalkeeper, Kyle Letheren regained the gloves from Jökull Andrésson in the last match and Robbo hinted that he’s slightly ahead of the Icelandic Under 21 international Reading loanee in the pecking order in his pre match interview.
¨Obviously Kyle was injured so I had no choice for the last four weeks really, up until this Saturday Kyle gives me a little bit more stability. A little bit more predictability. Jökull is a very good goalkeeper who, in three or four years time, will be a really good goalkeeper, but I felt Kyle gave me that predictability. ¨
Robbo also opted for the experience and leadership of 34-year-old Toumani Diagouraga at the base of midfield on Saturday, but I believe he will switch back to Callum Jones. The 20 year old Hull-loanee has been of the shining lights through a recent drop in team performances. Even in the defeat to MK Dons 4-0 at home, he still managed to win 10 of his 14 defensive duels whilst winning two from two on Saturday in his 26 minute cameo off the bench.
I could envisage him being lined up with the youthful pair of 21-year-old Leeds loanee Alfie McCalmont and 24-year-old Shane McLoughlin in front of him. The three players, whilst they lack significant EFL experience, offer great energy and technical ability.
The first name on our team sheet is the formidable Cole Stockton. He has 16 goals across all competitions and has scored in his last 3 outings.
He is outperforming his expected goals significantly, by a huge 6.41 according to Wyscout i.e. by the quality of his chances he’s been given, in theory, he should have scored less than 10 goals (9.59) according to Wyscout.
This was clearly evident in the work by the excellent BWFC Analysis released on Twitter on the 5th December.
As you can see by the graph, Cole is overachieving his expected goals significantly more than any other goalscorer in League One. Give him any kind of chance at your peril!
I believe he’ll have Arthur Gnahoua and Jonah Ayunga on the left and right of him respectively in attacking positions. Both players can drive the ball up the field with Jonah averaging 7.58 dribbles per game (60% successful) and Arthur averaging 5.31 dribbles per game (50.6% successful) according to Wyscout. These players need to be able to independently carry the ball – particularly if they win the ball back themselves high up the field and the rest of the Morecambe side are deeper behind the ball.
Despite not scoring in his last eight appearances, Jonah looks the most likely source of goals after Cole Stockton. He’s getting himself into scoring positions, but has lacked a little bit of composure at the vital moments. Due to his large physical frame and athleticism, when he’s got the bit between his teeth, he’ll make opposition defenders work.
¨This is actually an excellent time for Morecambe to play Sunderland. We have three full-backs injured, two central midfielders injured, as well as our best playmaker in Aiden McGeady.
Because of this, I would say the first eleven almost selects itself as Lee Johnson has very little choice. Our bench was filled mostly by under-23 players on Saturday and I think Elliot Embleton is the only candidate to potentially start.
The key tactical selection will be whether he sticks with the 3-4-1-2 system or if he moves back to our more preferred 4-2-3-1. Should he go 4-2-3-1 it means we have to shoehorn two central defenders to full-back. ¨
¨Not many in terms of personnel, we’ve been ravaged with long-term injuries meaning most of our bench consists of academy lads who aren’t really yet pushing into the first team.
Only thing I am unsure about now is the formation, we have stuck to a 4-2-3-1 (or at least a variation of it) all season up to now, but in the most recent game against Oxford it looked to be more of 3-5-2 in the first half, with Gooch and Dajaku playing more like wingbacks. Saying that, it didn’t really work and limited our attacking output, and was ultimately ditched at half time in favour of going back to the 4-2-3-1, so the only question is whether Lee fancies trying it again, though I would hope not. ¨
¨We have so many injuries at the moment, his decisions are going to be who to play as a square peg in which round hole. I’d expect him to start the game as we started the second half against Oxford, so probably Embleton coming back in, and same back 4 as second half on Saturday.¨
¨I think our main strengths are that we have some excellent technical players who can make things happen on the ball.
Alex Pritchard is currently on his best form since joining and our midfield duo of Carl Winchester and Dan Neil have had strong seasons.
We are at our best when we are on the ball playing out from the back and when our players are confident to try things and be daring.
The signings of Thorban Hoffmann and Callum Doyle have aided this as they are excellent on the ball.
Upfront Ross Stewart is currently having a dry spell, but he has been excellent this season and Nathan Broadhead is finding some form after a hamstring issue. ¨
¨We get most of our joy on the wings, we play our best football when we can stretch the pitch and get our fullbacks doubling up with our wingers out wide. This not only gives us a threat out wide but opens up more space in the middle of the park for the likes of Embleton, Neil, Pritchard and Broadhead to work in and receive the ball.
In terms of individuals, the key ones I would say, start with Dan Neil, when he’s on it we create so many more chances in a game, he’s the one capable of opening up defences when given the time and space on the ball, he’s got a great eye for a pass and often gets into quite advanced positions.
Ross Stewart has been excellent all season, but has maybe somewhat dropped off a bit in recent weeks, though for me more down to poor team performances meaning he isn’t as involved. Stewart is still a problem for any opposition however, he’s nearly always in the right positions to get on the end of things, and is also great in build-up play helping come wide and open up gaps in the defence, whilst using his physicality to hold the ball up well too.
The whole defence has been shaky recently and it has been decimated with injuries, but in the most recent games performances have picked up again at the back, Bailey Wright looks back to his best and Flanagan and Doyle look back to being relatively solid, Doyle especially is important for us in our build-up play as his progressive runs and passing from defence help us play through the thirds rather than surrendering possession.
Another shout should really go to Winchester who has arguably been our best player as of late, he looks to have been put back in his more natural position in central midfield and is benefitting from it, he’s so aggressive in tackles and covers the fullbacks well. One last player I’ll give a mention is Broadhead who clearly has great technical ability, and as proven against Cambridge, can’t be given too much time and space on the ball, or he will punish you.¨
¨Our strengths are getting the ball down and playing through the lines, and our best formation, players permitting, is 4-2-3-1. We haven’t played that much in the last few games due to injuries but we went to that Saturday and looked better second half.
Stewart needs to get back to running the channel more and bringing others into play, that’s a big strength of his and causes teams a lot of problems and creates space for our creative players like Pritch, Embo and Broadhead to thrive. Those 4, if on their game, will be key, as will Dan Neil, he’s been magnificent this season barring a couple of mediocre performances. When we’ve struggled in games he’s then been unable to play his game, when given time and space to get on the ball he’s a wonderful footballer and can cause problems from deep with defence splitting passes. ¨
When Sunderland get the ball moving they look more like a Championship side than League One and they can be devastating on the ball, as all three contributors have alluded to.
Sunderland rank 5th in the division for key passes with 72 – double the 36 which Morecambe have produced this season in League One according to Wyscout.
A key pass is defined as a ´pass that immediately creates a clear goal scoring opportunity for a team mate´.
Sunderland have an array of creators who can hit the killer pass, which is one of the reasons they can be so difficult to play against when it clicks.
The chart below shows the total number of key passes by a player on the left and the key passes per 90 minutes on the right.
Fortunately for the Shrimps, as pointed out earlier, Aidan McGeady who was creating over one key pass per game, is missing. However, before we get too excited by the Scotsman´s absence, there are other players who are creating an even higher proportion of key passes per game.
Lynden Gooch is averaging 0.84 key passes per game and you can quickly see why when you observe the quality of his delivery from crosses. He also can read the game well to link up with his teammates in attack.
In the key pass below, against Fleetwood Town, he drives to the edge of the box and delivers a perfect cross for Ross Stewart to head towards goal.
Against Burton below, Gooch receives the ball at the edge of the box from Daniel Neil.
He finds space in the box and controls the ball with his left foot.
With his second touch he reads Aidan McGeady´s run perfectly and plays a delicate right foot pass to him.
The magic of this move is the simplicity and illustrates how quickly Sunderland can carve open chances.
Another key player is Dan Neil who is averaging a key pass two in every three games. In the action below against Crewe, he shows his attacking intent.
While Aidy McGeady is holding off Crewe wingback Kayne Ramsay, you can see Dan Neil planning his next pass by taking a hard look at what’s ahead of him.
He receives the ball in plenty of space just in the Crewe half.
His lofted ball forward creates a clear goal scoring chance for Aiden O´Brien.
This just shows a couple of players who have the ability to create big chances from very little, if the opposition is not fully switched on. As the key pass table demonstrated, across the team there are many who can pick a pass. If any player from the opposition team switches off in their defensive duties, The Mackems have the technical ability to pick a pass and score in a matter of seconds.
In Ross Stewart they have a 6ft 2 centre forward who needs little invitation in the box. All ten of his League goals have come in the box, four of which have been from headers.
Weaknesses of Sunderland
¨100% at left-back/left-wing-back.
We currently are without Dennis Cirkin and Niall Huggins until the New Year, plus Denver Hume has been constantly injured since he rejoined the club after a contract dispute. Luke O’Nien was covering here but he now is also sidelined long-term with a shoulder issue.
Leon Dajaku has started here during the past few matches, but he is a winger who you can tell just isn’t comfortable defending.
We also have only two fit central midfielders so should Winchester or Neil pick up an injury we will struggle to replace them.¨
¨Weaknesses definitely have to start with how threadbare the squad currently is. Lots of long-term injuries have ravaged the squad meaning we are playing without any fullbacks, and only one winger, whilst also having a bench that mainly consists of academy products who maybe aren’t ready yet.
I think we’re also starting to suffer from the fatigue aspect of so many games with the same players having to play every game. I’d say we definitely looked a bit sapped of energy at the weekend, so I can’t imagine it being much different in this game. We’ve started struggling to really create lots of chances in a game going forward too, so it’s not hard with a good low block and defensive performance to keep us out, this has been a problem for us for a while. ¨
¨Weaknesses are aerial balls, and allowing crosses to come in too easily. We look to have improved on this in the last few games but against Rotherham and Sheff Wed we were awful in that regard and even Charlton’s goal was scored in similar fashion.
All 5 of Rotherham’s goals were inside the 6 yard box and 4 were headers, so make of that what you will. We don’t have any fullbacks fit so if we go with the team expected then Wright can be got at pace wise although he’s been back to his best recently and stepped up after some previously poor performances.
If Gooch or Dajaku play either LB or LWB then that’s 2 right footed attacking players, Dajaku in particular doesn’t track back well but in either scenario they can be got at. When things have been difficult we haven’t had a plan B and that’s been the worry, too, so we aren’t tactically flexible when things go wrong in game.¨
The consistent theme across the three contributions is how injuries have forced players to play in unnatural positions – particularly at left back / left wing back position.
When carrying out my research, one aspect did surprise me about Sunderland, considering they’re definitely one of the top sides in the division and that’s the perceived chances they’re giving the opposition.
According to the Analyst, The Black Cats have the 9th highest expected goals against in League One. Essentially, with an expected goals of 18.2 and actually conceded goals of 19 in 19 games, they will give the opposition chances to score.
Reviewing their last game against Oxford United, they gave ´The U’s´ at least two good chances from being indecisive with the ball and being pressed.
In the example below, Carl Winchester has the ball and, with just a little bit of movement from him or his team mates, a simple ball out should be available.
Instead he holds the ball too long both Matty Taylor (9) and Cameron Brannagan (8) close him down and win the ball back from him.
As a result, Brannagan gets a clear sight for a shot on Ron Hoffman´s goal.
Black Cat centre back, Bailey Wright, plays the ball from out wide to Lynden Gooch in defence. Instead of clearing his lines he is caught in his indecision.
Wright heads towards his goal unconvincingly and Oxford winger Nathan Holland closes him down and the Black Cat´s defender weakly falls over.
Holland then advances into the area unopposed.
He lays the ball into the path of forward Matty Taylor who smashes home the equaliser.
Opportunities against Sunderland
¨If Sunderland play with a three it will 100% be down the flanks. Lynden Gooch is an effective wing-back, but his one-vs-one defending could be improved so there is potential there for yourselves.
If I was Stephen Robinson I would be targeting Dajaku at left-wing-back. He is not strong aerially and will spend most of the match trying to get forward. Your best chances will come down this side if you can isolate him.
Other than that, the main way to hurt Sunderland is to be physical and stop us playing our game. Our team still looks too vulnerable defensively in my opinion and we lack physicality. ¨
¨We can really be got at down our wings also, before Winchester came into midfield we didn’t really have anyone covering the fullbacks when they pushed up to engage, meaning our CB’s would be the ones to come and cover and leave massive gaps in our midfield, which a lot of teams have been able to exploit and get in down the flanks, since Winchester came into the midfield he does this more often however which has helped in recent games.
Often we don’t pick up on the late runs into the box so have conceded a few from cutbacks. With no natural fullbacks available this just makes the wings even more susceptible.¨
The physicality of Cole Stockton and Jonah Ayunga running the channels could cause a depleted Sunderland defence a headache.
In the Papa John´s Trophy game against Carlisle last month, Jonah was up against 20 year old midfielder Taylor Charter, who was playing out of position at right back. Jonah bullied him early on and went on to complete 12 of his 19 dribbles and with a bit more composure, from him and his team mates, it would have lead to goals.
As demonstrated with Cole Stockton’s goal against Lincoln (the first one in the collection below), if you get too tight to him he has the strength to bounce a defence off, find a yard and unleash a shot.
Highlighted in the weaknesses is on occassions Sunderland may hold onto the ball too long and overplay it. This provides an opportunity for The Shrimps to create traps and steal the ball high up in dangerous areas.
The other opportunity is if we can stay in the game, there will be little sympathy from the home crowd if they can´t ´put the sword´ to a side deemed below their level by most. This could work in Robbo´s mens favour.
Threats from Sunderland
¨The main players to look out for moving forward for Sunderland will be Alex Pritchard, Nathan Broadhead and of course, Ross Stewart.
Pritchard has looked incredibly sharp recently and is starting to make things happen finally. We are starting to see glimpses of why Norwich and Huddersfield spent so much money on him in the Premier League.
On the other hand, Broadhead is an excellent footballer who has regularly impressed during his limited time on the pitch. Now that his injuries issues seem to have gone, he looks like that player who you can expect to create something and finish a chance when the game is tight.
Lastly, Stewart was given the difficult task of replacing Charlie Wyke, and to his credit his goals return started fantastically. Lately, he has dipped in form in front of goal, but I am confident that he will find his form again as his general play is excellent. ¨
¨Like I say, we play our best stuff down the wings, when we overload the wings we can often get a lot of joy out wide, whether that be getting decent crosses into the box for Stewart to get on the end of, or working it more inside when there is more space and getting joy between the lines.
We need to look to get Dan Neil on the ball more often, as he is the one that can really make things happen when we might be struggling, and also look to get Stewart more involved in the game, it’s felt like going forward recently we’ve just ignored the things that were working for us so well at the start of the season. Getting Broadhead the ball into his feet also helps, he has heaps of technical ability so getting him 1-vs-1 in advanced areas can cause problems.¨
¨If we can get the ball down and play our football we have a good chance, we need Stewart to run the channels and bring others into play more than he has done in the last few games and we need to get good service into him. He’s a threat with the ball at his feet or in the air.
Pritchard is hitting good form now and can cause problems if given space, broadhead has an eye for goal and for a good pass (see his highlights from Cheltenham).
Stewart seems to be the only threat from corners for us, so I definitely don’t see that being our most likely avenue for a goal, through balls splitting the defence or crosses in open play are the best opportunities for us. ¨
As the three have articulated, they have an embarrassment of attacking talent to cause us issues during the game. All the players on the pitch will have to concentrate well for the 90 plus minutes with their defensive duty.
As we reviewed in the strengths, with the technical capability they possess, Sunderland can and do make quick passes or deliver a cross to get a goal in seconds. Our defence has shown itself vulnerable to lapses of concentration and we cannot afford them at The Stadium of Light if we’re to get a positive result.
An area of concern is the five goals The Black Cats have scored this season from corners.
In the image below against Cambridge, Sunderland crowd the six yard box while Alex Prichard delivers an inswinging corner.
The ball bounces off the back post onto the head of goalkeeper Dimitar Veselinov Mitov for an own goal.
11 of our 34 goals have been conceded from set pieces according to The Analyst.
According to the Met Office, there’s a 40% chance of rain before kick off and 30 mph winds are expected in the Sunderland area. Last Saturday against Buxton in the FA Cup, we faced a short bombardment of corners, in shocking conditions, but fortunately we didn’t concede. Cole Stockton was a key member of winning first contacts from defensive corners and we will require more of the same from all the team in order to stop a lofty Sunderland side in swirly conditions.
LET THE BATTLE COMMENCE!
It looks all set for a close game. Given the number of players who are out injured for Sunderland, being played out of position or just coming back from injury I’m hoping that can act as a bit of a leveller.
My colleague (a Hammer), having just read the review, mentioned two constants with regard to SAFC; his first trip to Roker was in 76/77 and he watched West Ham get demolished 6-0 by Bobby Kerr and his boys, Sunderland had even scored six goals in their two previous home games and yet they still went down at the end of that season; they have always baffled the neutral supporter.
I too find it incredible as an outsider looking in, how Sunderland remain a League One club. Whilst I hope we can get some kind of result on the night, I must admit I grew an affinity towards Sunderland having watched Sunderland Till I die as a neutral and wish the Makems the best for the rest of the season. It intrigues me to see what The Black Cats will be playing for in the last game of the season at The Mazuma stadium!
The other constant he mentioned in Wearside? The weather! Sounds like we´re in for a storm at The Stadium of Light. Go well everyone – especially The Shrimps faithful travelling cross country to back Robbo and the lads.. I hope you have enjoyed reading the preview.
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