Tactical breakdown: The quick improvements Lee Johnson has already made to Sunderland explored

In a period of real change of Sunderland, we’re finally starting to see some green shoots.

Thursday, 10th December 2020, 4:45 pm

The last week has brought a change in structure, a change in the dugout and some element of change at the very top of the club is expected to come in the near future.

But one of the biggest changes has come on the field.

Sunderland, for so long ingrained in the 3-4-3 formation preferred by Phil Parkinson, are starting to forge a new style under Lee Johnson.

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The quick improvements Lee Johnson has already made to Sunderland explored

We’ve only seen the Black Cats under their new head coach twice, with Johnson only able to benefit from one training session between the two games, but some changes have been quick and effective.

So what has changed under Lee Johnson from a tactical perspective? We take a look:


Both of Johnson’s games so far have seen Sunderland start in a 4-3-3 – and this looks to be the route he will take moving forward.

Sunderland deliveries into the box are coming from far better areas (Image and Data: WyScout s.P.a).

But it’s already been suggested by both Johnson and sporting director Kristjaan Speakman that the Black Cats need to be flexible.

The previous managerial team stuck rigidly to a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, and rarely mixed things up.

So far, Johnson hasn’t changed his shape much either. You could argue there hasn’t been much cause to, given that Sunderland have attacked well in both his games thus far (even considering the disappointing Wigan result).

The true test of flexibility will come in time, with fans keen to see the side develop a more effective plan B.

And the system isn’t the only thing Johnson has changed, either.


Sunderland have topped the League One charts for deliveries into the box for much of the season.

But there have been question marks over how effective these deliveries into the box have been.

A high number of crosses is all well and good, but it means nothing if they aren’t leading to chances. And in recent weeks, they haven’t been.

Those question marks haven’t quite disappeared yet, and the fact that only 24 per cent of the Black Cats’ crosses at Oldham were accurate suggests there is work to be done.

There is encouragement to be taken, though, in the fact that Sunderland are improving on where they deliver the ball from.

A look at their crossing map from the Burton Albion game shows that 17 out of the 40 crosses were attempted from further than 18 yards out. Get the ball, and pump it into the box.

At Oldham, though, only delivery came from further than edge of the box – and that was because Max Power cleverly spotted Will Grigg making an intelligent run into space.

Rather than shelling the ball aimlessly into the box, Sunderland are forging better crossing opportunities and ensuring their deliveries come from areas which are more likely to yield positive opportunities.

In time, you would hope that will pay off.


Sunderland were robust under Phil Parkinson. They were generally well-organised, disciplined in their shape and had a clear plan.

But at times, there was little scope for individual flair. It was akin to playing football by numbers, with the players well-drilled in what to do – but they weren’t executing those moments of brilliance that can so often win games.

The adventurous run, the little bit of trickery, the moment of inventiveness that can unlock defences was absent for so long.

That’s not to say there won’t those little moments of genius – you need only think back to some of the games after the turn of the year when Lynden Gooch took matters into his own hands – but it’s fair to say Sunderland weren’t the most expressive of sides in an attacking sense.

We’ve already seen some small signs that suggest this won’t be the case under Johnson.

Take Jack Diamond on Tuesday evening, who was able to run at the backline and was a threat throughout.

Even something as simple as getting bodies in the box – something which Johnson has alluded to early on – has seen a marked improvement in the opening weeks of the season.

Against Burton, in the final game before Johnson’s arrival, there were times where the lone striker was the only man in the box. And on most occasions when balls were swung into the box, there were only a couple of players in the danger area.

But at Oldham, Max Power and Josh Scowen were given the green light to push higher up the field and get into areas where they can hurt the opposition.

Giving the duo the freedom to join in with the attacking phase and slightly removing the shackles of defensive duties should help Sunderland with one of their major problems in recent months: putting the ball in the back of the net.

While there will undoubtedly be a large element of structure under Johnson – as there would be under any manager – it's encouraging to see that Sunderland's attacking talents are able to express themselves that little bit more.

Here’s hoping that continues.


While there is plenty to be said for players being expressive and having freedom in the final third, the backline needs to remain solid.

And we saw on Tuesday evening that, as Sunderland commit players forward, they could be vulnerable on the transition if teams can break quickly.

Oldham did that, and with visiting players tracking back, found plenty of space to forge a chance that eventually led to a goal.

Improvements on that front will come with time, as players become accustomed to the system and what is expected of them when teams quickly counter.

But it’s something to be wary of in the short-term, with some tricky fixtures on the horizon.

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