Sunderland can expose Man City's defensive fragility '“ here's how
David Moyes was in the Etihad stands on Wednesday, many of the Sunderland faithful no doubt tuning in.
All could be forgiven for feeling a slight sense of trepidation as they watched Manchester City pull apart an admittedly under-strength Championship side in Huddersfield Town.
Pep Guardiola selected a strong team and they were irrepressible in attack, with Huddersfield’s surprise opener only delaying the inevitable. They concede chances, however, any observer can see that.
So what do Sunderland have to guard against and how can they pro-actively expose City’s frailties in Sunday’s Premier League clash?
Exploit the gaps
The only surprise selection Guardiola made on Wednesday night was to go with Aleix Garcia in midfield.
The 19-year-old operates primarily as a defensive midfielder, but, in truth, they don’t really play with one, certainly not in the Claude Makelele mould. Their 4-5-1 is ultra-attacking, with two advanced playmakers and wingers who rarely drop back.
The rotation is mesmerising, making it difficult to track runners.
It is bold and wonderful to watch, but it can be brutally exposed on the counter.
Even Huddersfield’s second string demonstrated that, young midfielder Philip Billing enjoying a superb first half as carried the ball into the space between midfield and defence.
Consider that the relatively disciplined Garcia will be replaced by Yaya Toure, and you begin to see a chink of light for Sunderland.
He has been inconsistent, but the way Adnan Januzaj has created chances for Jermain Defoe in that space, that will be key to the Black Cats’ attacking here.
Don’t leave the full-backs to it
Sunderland earned an impressive point against Liverpool in the New Year, not overwhelmed even though they surprisingly lined up in a 4-4-2 formation.
That was largely down to the massive distance covered by Seb Larsson and Fabio Borini on the flanks, both delivering by far their best display of 2017 so far.
If Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were tricky customers then City’s Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling are another matter entirely.
Sane is an electric presence and glides past players, while no player in the top five European leagues has completed as many successful dribbles in the opposition box as Sterling this season.
Guardiola is not seen as a traditional Premier League manager, but he is one of very few to play two wingers, relieving them largely of defensive responsibilities and leaving them mainly to play one-on-one with the full-back.
They are in superb form and if Sunderland’s wide players don’t track back, as with Everton’s opening goal last weekend, they will be punished.
Put pressure on the goalkeeper
Claudio Bravo showed his frailties in the FA Cup tie, again letting a weak shot through his defences, but, in fairness, his distribution under pressure was excellent.
He will, in all likelihood, be replaced by Willy Caballero on Sunday afternoon. Caballero has performed reliably since being reintroduced to the team earlier this year.
He is calm under pressure but is certainly not a sweeper-keeper in the mould his manager is looking for.
Sunderland need to be selective in their pressing, but forcing the keeper into making risky passes could be a real avenue to success.
That applies equally to the full-backs.
In the opening game of the season, Guardiola asked his full-backs to emulate what Philipp Lahm and David Alaba had done at Bayern Munich, moving infield and controlling possession.
They looked ill-equipped to do and the experiment was quickly abandoned. Sunderland should put them on pressure again on Sunday.
Try to make set-pieces count
It has been a bugbear of Sunderland fans all season that the Black Cats have not been able to make the most of dead-ball situations.
City are perhaps not quite as vulnerable as you might expect, given their defensive frailties, but, with Sunderland struggling to create from open play, it is essential they make better use from dead ball situations.