The League One Play-Off Final sees Charlton Athletic come head-to-head with Sunderland for a place back in the Championship. Our forensic tactical analysis will preview both sides heading into the fixture.
The Addicks sealed their place in the Wembley showpiece via a nail-biting 4-3 victory on penalties against Doncaster Rovers following an enthralling 4-4 aggregate draw over the two semi-final legs. As for the Black Cats, they triumphed 1-0 over Portsmouth after two closely-fought affairs, with a stunning Chris Maguire volley in the opening match proving to be the difference between the teams.
Bielik allows formational fluidity
On loan Arsenal man Krystian Bielik has been one of Charlton’s leading lights this year, impressing in various areas of the pitch during his stint at The Valley.
The powerful Pole is capable in either a defensive midfield role or when dropping deeper into a traditional central defensive position, and this versatility has facilitated the Addicks’ ability to alternate between formations.
When positioned further back, as seen below, he creates a back five when defending and bolsters his side’s ability to be more compact centrally and repel balls into the box. His 6’2” frame gives him the presence of a traditional defender, allowing him to competently deal with forwards of a more physical ilk.
His calmness with the ball at his feet – learned from his time in midfield when positioned there – permit Charlton to begin attacks on the floor from deep, and such is his capacity to step out of the backline, create overloads to help them keep the ball.
However, if chosen to sit at the base of midfield he gives licence for teammates to commit themselves forward; such is the security he offers behind the ball. His immense physical capabilities enable him to cover the ground rapidly, hounding opponents with the ball and breaking up attacks.
The great confidence placed in him by more offensive-minded players allows them to express themselves and take risk further forward, as his defensive cover accounts for their efforts in getting forward. He may well be tasked with marshalling the Sunderland central attacking midfielder, preventing him from dictating the tempo of proceedings.
Many of Charlton’s attacks come from one of their two strikers, Lyle Taylor and Josh Parker, holding the ball up in the half space.
They will frequently look to isolate the full back in such areas, pinning them and using their strength and power to retain the ball. This is the trigger for the attacking midfielders and/or wing backs to get beyond the striker with the ball, creating options for the player to whom the ball is passed to. The striker’s drawing out of the full back to then pass over the defender into the vacant space is a huge part of Charlton’s armoury. Two examples of Taylor and Parker moving into the half space to receive the ball can be seen below.
Midfield must be disciplined
This battle will likely be decided by whichever side is able to dominate the midfield and create from there on. This will require great concentration and application from those in the middle of the pitch, and such skills are not easily acquired.
Albie Morgan was selected to start on the left-hand side of the Charlton midfield for their clashes against Doncaster, however as we can see he was guilty of ill-discipline in his positioning.
The below diagram illustrates the space that Morgan has left and thus how Rovers were then allowed to build an attack through the area he should have been situated in.
This is why the experienced Darren Pratley may well be favoured for the final, a man used to the big occasion and therefore will be unlikely to let it faze him. He will be guaranteed to offer defensive cover and, perhaps more importantly, a cool head in what will be a frantic environment – a skill that cannot be underestimated in a game of such magnitude.
His defensive competence is highlighted below, sitting deeper than Morgan would and not getting drawn out in order to protect his defence and make his side more compact as a unit.
Defensively compact – but quick in transition
Sunderland set up in a low block with two banks of four (below) when out of possession in order to frustrate their opponents and prevent themselves from being passed through with ease. They are quick to react having lost the ball, with all players fully aware of their roles as soon as the ball is turned over.
The player tasked with operating between midfield and attack will be detached from the block, positioning himself higher up in order to give his team an out-ball upon offensive transition. In the occasions above and below George Honeyman (10) is doing so, ensuring that his team can retain the ball when they win it back.
When they do retain it, they are rapid in transition. The three attacking midfielders all burst out, giving options across the width of the pitch to prevent their opponents from squeezing them in one area and ensuring they have plenty of choices to choose from instantly. They often look to switch the ball as soon as they win it back in order to prevent their opponents from getting set and increase their chances of a successful counter-attack.
Whether in transition or within possession, a feature of Sunderland’s play is that their ball-far winger will stay out wide whilst their ball-near winger will come inside.
This was particularly prevalent in their success in the first leg, and doing so allows them to keep the pitch big and open up spaces for their creative players to operate within. The ball-far winger draws out his direct full-back and so keeps alive the option of switching play also. Both examples below – firstly shown by Lyndon Gooch and latterly by Lewis Morgan – indicate such tactics, and this could well be crucial in dragging around the Charlton midfield.
There was a slight alteration to the Mackems’ game plan for the clash on the south coast, with their width being provided by their full-backs as opposed to their wingers. The widest two of the three behind the striker were Honeyman and Maguire, neither of whom possess electric pace to beat men down the outside. As such, they were inclined to drift inside and link play instead – as seen by Honeyman’s diagonal run below – and thereby open up spaces for their full-backs to advance into, as is being done by Luke O’Nien owing to Honeyman’s run.
This moving infield by Honeyman and Maguire gave them numerical superiority in the central areas of the pitch without forfeiting the width that allows the central players space to operate within. Whether Charlton line up in a 5-3-2 or 4-diamond-2, they possess naturally wide players to track back in neither. As such, this could be an area that the Black Cats look to target, getting overloads out wide to distort the density of Charlton’s defence.
As their full-backs advance, Sunderland’s cover is provided by the nous of Lee Cattermole and Grant Leadbitter. The vastly experienced duo form a ‘box’ alongside central defenders Tom Flanagan and Alim Ozturk, making it extremely hard for opponents to counter through them due to their numerical advantage defensively. This formation closes off the central areas for opponents and forces them wide, thereby minimising the risk on Sunderland’s goal.
It is the job of Taylor, Parker and Joe Aribo to disrupt this shape, making dynamic, diagonal runs in transition to pull apart these four and ensure they are not given the time to easily win the ball back.
These are two similar teams who no doubt feel they should be in the second tier of English football. It will be a game won or lost in the midfield, and whichever side can upset the formation of the others better will likely prevail. Charlton need to produce better quality on the ball than they did in their two semi-finals, and their attacking duo will be key for this. As for Sunderland, if they can dominate out wide – and therefore give more space centrally – they will have a great chance of success.
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