The key tactical message Lee Johnson had for his Sunderland players this week ahead of their latest test

Lee Johnson says bravery in possession is going to be key for Sunderland as they look to start off a defining week in their season with a win against Rochdale.

Saturday, 6th March 2021, 6:00 am

A raft of injury issues has forced Johnson to slightly tweak his philosophy in recent games, moving to a back three that utilises central midfielders in defensive positions.

The Head Coach has embraced the greater possession Sunderland have inevitably enjoyed as a result, but Tuesday's narrow in against Swindon Town emphasised the difficulties it can present in breaking down a deep-lying defence.

Though Rochdale are a side renowned for their willingness to attack and play out from the back (they have scored more goals than any other team in the bottom eight), Johnson says their approach out of possession is likely to be similar.

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Lee Johnson says Sunderland's midfielders will be key in their latest test against Rochdale
Lee Johnson says Sunderland's midfielders will be key in their latest test against Rochdale

He has therefore been working with his players on some 'tricks' to help them to be more incisive.

"They're very good on the ball but they're also, statistically, they have one of the lowest PPDA (passes-per-defensive-action) rates," Johnson said.

"They sit off and you have to break them down.

"One of the things I spoke about after the Swindon game was the need to have those midfielders who can change the tempo, play forward and have the attitude to that.

"The Port Vale game in the Papa John's Trophy was a great example of that, because we almost took that as an extended training session.

"Josh Scowen had a great game that day because he did both parts really well, he drove forward and committed people, he attacked space, played forward.

"Then he's obviously one of the best interceptors and ball-winners in the division, as well.

"That's what we're after, in moments like that you need vision and cohesion.

"We've got a couple of little tricks up our sleeve that we've introduced today from my travels, and we'll see whether when we're on the ball we can be slightly more penetrative than we were the other night."

Johnson is not expecting any injured players to return to his squad on Saturday afternoon, but the picture is set to significantly improve over the next week.

Two crucial games follow Rochdale's visit and he admits some of his selections will be tailored as he reintegrates those sidelined.

"I was saying this morning - I remember hearing stories about Sir Alex Ferguson where he's told players to get themselves ready for that game and it's the important game for them," he said.

"I've had to have one or two conversations like that today and it's not being disingenuous, that's a fact.

"We recognise that a particular attribute in a particular game is very important.

"I suppose at the moment, the positive is we've got the luxury to be able to do that over the next two or three games.

It's something we've had to think about quite deeply if I'm honest with you. We've got to win all the games.

"You look at the opposition and think right can we subject our strengths onto them and project our dangerous and penetrative runs. To do that we need energy and the passes.

"We've had to be really flexible and I think the boys deserve a massive amount of credit for how flexible they've been within the shapes that we've played."

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