The tactical issues Sunderland have faced against Portsmouth, Charlton and Rotherham as ex-Newcastle man exploits weakness
When analysing Sunderland’s three most recent defeats a familiar pattern has emerged.
After losing to Portsmouth and Charlton, there was a general feeling the Black Cats failed to match the physicality and high-pressing game of their opponents. It was a similar story at Rotherham too.
There is also a theme when you look at the systems the aforementioned opponents have played against Sunderland, as Lee Johnson's side have struggled to cope with the opposition’s use of wing-backs.
That’s not to say the Black Cats have been found out every time they have come up against a similar system. The likes of MK Dons, Wycombe and Championship side QPR have all operated with a back three and wing-backs and lost to Sunderland this campaign.
Still, while it hasn’t been the only issue, Johnson’s side have struggled on the flanks in their recent defeats.
That was the case at Rotherham, who repeatedly play with two natural wingers at wing-back.
On this occasion, Chiedozie Ogbene and ex-Newcastle man Shane Ferguson were deployed on the flanks, and a look at the players’ heatmaps show the advanced positions they were taking up.
Ferguson in particular enjoyed plenty of space in the first half as Sunderland winger Leon Dajaku and right-back Carl Winchester appeared confused as to who should be picking their opponent up.
There was one moment in the first half when Johnson shouted at Winchester to push forward and engage with Ferguson higher up the pitch, while it was clear the Northern Irishman was getting little protection from Dajaku.
The space Ferguson was enjoying on the left allowed the wing-back to deliver six crosses into the Sunderland box, double more than any other player on the pitch, with Rotherham strikers Michael Smith and Freddie Ladapo ready to pounce.
On the other flank, Ogbene had the same attacking mindset, repeatedly pinning back Dennis Cirkin and Aiden McGeady. Eventually the latter’s frustration boiled over as he was sent off for a reckless challenge which resulted in a second yellow card.
Rotherham’s system was causing so many problems that Johnson decided to match the hosts up by bringing on Bailey Wright and Lynden Gooch at half-time.
Yet the changes did little to change the flow of the game as Sunderland endured an afternoon to forget.