Wow, here we are, the final League One game of an absolute rollercoaster season! Today promises to be an emotional day for both the Morecambe fans and the masses of travelling Sunderland supporters in a sold-out Mazuma Stadium.
The Black Cats need maximum points to guarantee a playoff spot, whilst The Shrimps need just one point to cement another season in the third tier of English football.
To guide us through a preview of the game from The Black Cats perspective, we have a stellar line-up with expertise from Cam Phillips, Luke Mapstone from SAFC Data Analytics and Matthew Crichton from The Roker Report.
We’ll run through team selections, strengths and weaknesses of Sunderland, opportunities against them and biggest threats from them.
But first, what are they expecting from the game? The last game was an easy affair for The Black Cats in the 5-0 win at The Stadium of Light, do they believe it will be similar again?
“I think it will be a much tighter affair this time around. If you look at all of the big wins we’ve had at home, none of them have been repeated in the away leg. In general, under Neil we don’t look as fluid or like we will score quite as many as previously so I’m expecting a closer game.”
“Certainly not, well aware of what’s at stake for both teams here, in the last game there might not have been much fight back but I certainly expect at least that in this one. I am going in expecting us to put everything into getting this win and setting ourselves up for the playoffs, going into it in a better position and with good form. We need to secure our place there first and foremost anyway!”
“I think the match will be the complete opposite of the thrashing we saw at the Stadium of Light. Morecambe will all be up for it knowing they’re playing for League One survival and I actually would rather have seen Sunderland come up against a mid table side with nothing to play for.
I think our players are heading into the match on form, but there will be mass pressure on us as well as we are likely to need a result to maintain our playoff spot, plus a win could see us claim fourth, which would see us play our second leg at home.
My hope is that both Gillingham and Fleetwood are losing midway through the second half so the Morecambe players take their foot off the gas a touch. Playing against a side away from home who desperately need a result is very difficult, we learnt that lesson a few years back against Southend.
Trevor Carson was on the bench 62 times for Sunderland without making an appearance (surely a club record), so it is certain that he will have a blinder!”
We’ve set up in a very similar way for the last seven games. For the majority of each of those games we’ve started with four at the back in either 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 and I don’t anticipate Derek Adams to change for this game, despite the 2-0 defeat away to automatic promotion chasers MK Dons. During this run we’ve averaged 1.43 points per game vs 0.84 points per game for the 36 games prior.
In Derek’s pre-match interview, he did mention that a player who had played at Stadium MK wouldn’t be available for today’s game. He keeps his cards close to his chest so it’ll be anyone’s guess who may be missing when the team’s announced at 11:30am!
I’m going to hazard a guess that Aaron Wildig will be back in the squad after injury in place of Toumani Diagouraga in midfield. He was fit enough to be named on the bench last weekend and has had a full week to get back fit.
“A few decisions have been forced upon him with injuries so the back three picks itself for this game I think, along with Patterson in goal. The decisions to be made will be in CM, Attacking Midfield and at Wing Back. After recent performances Gooch should be favoured at RWB so I’m expecting to see Clarke as LWB as he is the only person other than Gooch who can play that position. Alternatively, Trai Hume could start on the right and Gooch on the left. Personally, I think Luke O’Nien should be at the wing back position, but tends to be preferred in midfield. There’s slight question marks over fitness of Pritchard and Broadhead but hoping they’ll be fit to play”
“For me the main thing is whether you put Pritchard back out from the start. For me, he has to play if he is fit and get him ready for the playoffs. At the same time Embleton and O’Nien have played the role well in different games and it either means dropping one of them or at least moving them back into a more defensive position, which doesn’t suit Embleton as much, I don’t think.
Defence is pretty much set unless Winchester comes back as injuries have meant the back 3 will have to stay as it is. Gooch has been playing well in the last couple, so he’ll occupy one wingback slot and we’ve been chopping and changing who plays the other so there’s that decision to make. Been playing different midfield partnerships also, Evans looked to have locked his place in there but you have Matete, Neil, O’Nien and Embleton who can all go in next to him.“
“The only positions likely to change are in midfield. Alex Neil set up fairly defensively against Rotherham to combat their strength down the flanks, plus we did not play any creative midfielders. Our entire bench was basically wingers or number tens.
I think it is likely that Alex Pritchard will replace Jay Matete, with Luke O’Nien dropping deep, then it’s a toss up between Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts as to who replaces Trai Hume out wide. Personally, I would rather have seen Elliot Embleton partner Evans, but I can’t see Neil starting so offensively away from home.
Lynden Gooch appeared to pick up a knock on his calf late on against Rotherham, but hopefully that won’t keep him out.”
“Our strengths under Neil have been our defensive solidity which always gives us the platform to then push on and get the win, our determination to fight until the end – with 9 or 10 late goals coming since Neil took over. I think those goals have won us an additional 15 points. Also, Neil’s willingness to change things in game has been a big strength for us. This played out at Oxford where he changed the system in the second half and we got the win. One criticism of former manager Lee Johnson was he only had a plan A. “
“The defence has looked relatively solid the last few weeks. Looking more settled in the system and system allows for at least 4 players back preventing any open areas on the counter meaning we’re always relatively secure under Neil. Things started to click going forward against Cambridge so it will be interesting to see if that continues, but overall, since Neil came in, I think we’ve mainly relied on the quality of the players up top rather than any sort of patterns of play to create chances for them.
Against Cambridge (though most of it was against 10 men) we created lots of chances in the game and you could see the system coming to fruition, lots of wing play getting the wingbacks to stay wide and often pulling a striker out to help out there and filling out the box for any cross that comes in, the strikers dropping in, also when it’s in midfield to try and pull defenders out of position and open up space and then trying to lob balls over the top into the space created.”
“Under Alex Neil I would say our main strength has been that he has stabilised our defence. We were on the end of too many hammerings away from home, so it is refreshing to see that we have become more comfortable at the back.
Another thing that I will praise Neil for is his ability to change matches with his bench, we have seen many late goals to win games and that has often been down to the excellent depth we have coming off the bench. Against Rotherham for example, Patrick Roberts and Dan Neil did not even get a kick.
We use the flanks very well and you will find that Clarke and Gooch (or whoever plays) will sit very wide to try and get into isolated one vs one situations.
We are currently 12 games unbeaten, so the mentality is definitely strong within the squad at the moment.”
Each of the contributors have mentioned the improvement in their defensive strength since Alex Neil has taken over and it shows from the goals conceded. Under Lee Johnson, The Black Cats conceded 1.83 goals per game in his 29 outings in charge this season, whilst Neil’s side have let in an average of 0.71 goals per game. It was Johnson’s defence that ultimately cost him his job, culminating in a shock 6-0 defeat away to Bolton.
Contrastingly, in half of Alex Neil’s six away games, they’ve not conceded and have yet to be beaten on the road during his reign.
“Despite how much Alex Neil has toughened us up at the back, the game against Rotherham proved we can still get bullied by very physical, powerful, fast teams. We have been a lot better at set pieces but last night proved we are still susceptible to that.
The defensive changes which have solidified us have also meant we’re not creating quite as many chances as before but we don’t necessarily need to be out scoring teams with 4-5 goals every game if we’re conceding 0-1 per game recently. With the way our wingbacks have been set up, it has meant not enough balls into the box and Ross Stewart’s goal contributions have dried up, he hadn’t scored in 8 before Cambridge, and I think that is the key reason.
We got a lot more crosses into the box against Cambridge and lo and behold he scored from a cross (as well as his penalty). We need to replicate the Cambridge performance and get more crosses into the box – we’ve only tended to do that late on when desperate recently, and a lot of our late goals have come from crosses, so why we aren’t getting more balls into the box from earlier on in the game is anyone’s guess.”
“We’ll start with pressing, our last game against Rotherham showed that a good press can stop our game plan quite well, we often take a long time on the ball looking for the right pass and Rotherham had us rushing our play and losing it a lot.
The Rotherham game also showed that we can be easily physically dominated. The team isn’t filled with physicality and an aerially strong defence can stop our long balls into the striker and our crosses into the box. This physical weakness can also often hurt us on set pieces, I’m never confident defending one.
Lastly, I hate to point out individuals but I personally am not confident of Callum Doyle in a back 5. I feel his lack of defensive awareness is painfully exposed on the left of that defence and gets pulled around everywhere often leaving space where he’s meant to be. He has been thrust back in after a while out of the team and he certainly looks rusty still.”
“Our away form is the complete opposite of our home form. We have endured far too many draws against sides we should have beaten and, as I mentioned earlier, we were frequently hammered at the start of the season. Our goal difference is actually a minus away from home.
From my predicted side, I would say we have a highly inexperienced goalkeeper who struggles to command his area from set pieces (although this has improved significantly of late), plus Callum Doyle is a weak link aerially so I imagine Cole Stockton will sit on him.
I would also say that if Neil does select offensive wing-backs, they can be got at, at the other end.”
Whilst I mentioned The Black Cats have yet to lose away from The Stadium of Light under Neil, they’ve also been less free-scoring. In half of the away games they’ve not scored and the average points per game is 1.67 compared to 2.13 points per game in front of the Wearside home crowd.
For the overall season, Sunderland have the most points gained at home (51) whilst having the ninth highest points earnt away from home (30).
Opportunities against Sunderland
“The biggest opportunities against us will be in the air, or with pace down the flanks. Similarly, if Morecambe can go ahead early it could frustrate us. Or if we’re going late into the game level and with us needing the win to guarantee playoffs, then we could get exposed on the counter if we throw too many forward in search of the winner.”
“Like I say, set pieces are the main threat, we never look safe defending a corner. Targeting the right flank and exposing Doyle’s weaknesses can get you in behind our defence. And just simply putting a bit of pressure on our defence can often make us restless and cause a mistake at the back, or at least have us surrender position by hacking it up the field.”
“I would say for Morecambe scoring first is essential, as you want to place as much pressure on Sunderland as possible given that we need a result.
If you can mark Alex Pritchard or Elliot Embleton out of the match you will have joy, as our usual centre midfielders lack creativity. Doubling up on our wide men will also be crucial, as I would back Ross Stewart especially to win headers.
I would say your best chance of scoring will be from set pieces, as we are not a very tall or physical side, plus we do not have a commanding goalkeeper. “
I certainly feel we’ll do our best to frustrate Sunderland. Ultimately The Black Cats have more of the pressure to come and get three points from us (a draw keeps us up, while Sunderland need three points to make the playoffs certain). We’ll look to get men behind the ball, nick it back and counter quickly.
Luke mentions Doyle as a potential weakness in the left centre back and it’s interesting to look at his average positioning from Wyscout vs Rotherham.
As you can see, number 6 Doyle is slightly deeper than his colleagues in the other two centre back spots. Dylan Connolly loves to put himself about and has pace to go knock it past a player. If he can either win the ball off Doyle or expose him one on one, then maybe we can get in behind the Sunderland defence.
All of the contributors have mentioned Sunderland’s vulnerability from set-pieces. Having reviewed our attacking dead balls from recent weeks, it’s not an area where we are particularly threatening. However, Derek travelled to The Stadium of Light mid-week and I’m sure this potential frailty won’t have gone amiss. No doubt we’ve been working on some set-piece routine in the second-half of the week ahead of this crucial match-up.
Threats from Sunderland
“If Broadhead plays he’s been our biggest goal threat recently. He’s a serial poacher and fantastic all round player. I think it would be a different story if he’d been fit all season. If we can get balls into Stewart then of course he’d be a big threat too.
Pritchard and Embleton will bring creativity from midfield and both have an eye for a goal or assist, and if the game wears on and we need fresh impetus, Dan Neil and Patrick Roberts can cause problems with their passing, crossing and directness from the bench. If we get the early goal, and Morecambe then need to come out in search of an equaliser, the game could open up and that would suit us well.”
“We really hurt the back four of Cambridge with our wing play; we had a striker drift wide to occupy the fullback and have them make a decision of whether to mark the striker or the wingback, meaning we got it out wide a lot and managed to put a lot of crosses into the box.
We also got a lot of success in recent weeks putting balls in behind the defence in the space created by the strikers dragging defenders around the pitch.”
“The aim from our back three will be to fire the ball into Pritchard in the pockets, at our wing-backs in isolated wide areas, or over the top for our two strikers who both have pace.
Both Broadhead and Stewart are capable of running at players, plus Stewart is an excellent aerial threat.
Our main source of creativity will come from Pritchard or Embleton, whichever of them plays, they are two players that I would always back to unlock a defence.
Also, if things are going against us late on, we always have quality offensive players to come on and provide us with something different, which is especially impactful against tired legs.”
Michael mentions The Black Cat’s have players who can run at opposition players and this is reflected in their numbers. According to Wyscout, Sunderland have made the most 1v1 dribbles, 1564, compared to a League One average of 1159.71.
A major concern is we have conceded the most goals from headers in League One with 23, whilst Sunderland have scored the joint third most with 17. Ross Stewart has scored seven of those!
In the game at The Stadium of Light they had threats coming from all angles, but I was particularly impressed by Nathan Broadhead, Lynden Gooch and Leon Dajuka. They had the pace and guile to attack us in wide areas and our defence didn’t cope at all.
From the side that lost 5-0 that night, only Greg Leigh is in contention for a place in our defence and we’ll certainly have to defend much sharper than we did in the first game if we’re to get a positive result. There’s no doubt that all members of the side will be expected to dig in and do their defensive duties.
LET THE BATTLE COMMENCE!
To be honest, the beginning of this season seems so long ago that it’s become a bit of a blur. We went from the euphoria of the play-off win; to losing Derek Adams a few days later, Stephen Robinson’s project and departure and full circle back to Derek. Had we been offered at the start of the season to go into the last game needing one point to stay up, we’d have bitten their hands off! It all looked rather bleak just a few weeks ago.
After the 5-0 loss to Shrewsbury and 4-1 defeat to Wigan on the road, sitting in 22nd, FiveThirtyEight predicted that we had a 90% chance of relegation. Some fans thought we were done and dusted, however the team pulled together and, from nowhere, delivered three wins in four!
This has given us a great chance of survival with both Gillingham and Fleetwood needing to win with us losing in order for us to be relegated. What a turnaround to have dug in deep and put ourselves in this position!
Regardless of the outcome today, I’m immensely proud of the achievements of the season from my club. We’ve not given up, despite set-backs and we’ve shown great spirit on and off the pitch. Over 2,600 season tickets were sold this season and we’ve averaged 4,265 gates this season in League One. Not quite Sunderland levels of support, but a sizable increase in interest from the average crowds of 2,264 average crowd in our last season pre-covid in 2019/2020.
In 2017 we were close to losing our club all together and now we play the juggernaut that is Sunderland in a League game in the third tier of English football. It’s easy to forget that whichever place we finish, it’ll be our highest ever finish in over 101 years of existence.
Morecambe has once again regained its place as a proper hometown club with an eye to the community. I for one can’t wait for what the next chapter holds for us, but I’d bloody love it to be in League One again next season!
At this point, i’d also like to give praise to the vast numbers of people who have provided insights on behalf of their club this season. I am staggered by how many incredibly knowledgeable people i’ve been able to call upon. THANK YOU!
Also, I’d like to share my appreciation for all the comments and feedback I have received from readers this season. It certainly makes the many hours worthwhile when you know people are going to the effort of reviewing the content. THANK YOU for your on-going support.
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