Sunderland travelled to Fratton Park with a 1-0 lead from the first leg at the Stadium of Light to face a Portsmouth side they have already played four times this season. They say familiarity breeds contempt, and this was born out in this match with a high number of niggly fouls and overreactions contributing to a scrappy game which suited Sunderland due to their first-leg advantage.

Somewhat surprisingly Kenny Jackett decided to leave out top scorer Jamal Lowe from the starting line up with Viv Solomon-Otabor preferred. Jack Ross made two changes to the side from the first leg with Lynden Gooch and Lewis Morgan making way for Grant Leadbitter and Chris Maguire. The system was also changed slightly as Sunderland operated with a three-man midfield. This allowed them to have numerical superiority against Portsmouth’s midfield two and therefore provided them with a platform to control the game.

This tactical analysis will tell you how both teams drew on the night, resulting in Sunderland getting the upper hand due to their first-leg victory.

A scrappy opening

The first 25 minutes of the game was played in a frantic fashion with neither side able to assert any control over the game. Both sides concerned themselves with ensuring they didn’t make any mistakes in defensive areas of the pitch, which led to a large number of long balls played towards the respective strikers.

In Charlie Wyke, Sunderland had a big physical presence with which to play long balls, which on several occasions he was able to maintain possession. This enabled the Sunderland midfielders to provide support to him and start to build their attacks from the attacking third.

Key to the strategy of building the attacks in the final third was the quality of George Honeyman playing from the left side of a front three. He was the player looking to create opportunities to penetrate behind the Portsmouth defence. With Bryan Oviedo providing support from left back, this was Sunderland’s biggest threat.

EFL League 1 2018/19 Tactical Analysis Statistics: Portsmouth vs Sunderland
Sunderland looked most likely to create an opportunity down their left-hand side in the first half.

Like Sunderland, Portsmouth also had a big physical presence up front in the shape of Oli Hawkins, who they looked to play long balls towards. In the opening 25 minutes, he was often isolated and as a result, was unable to maintain possession of the ball. This created a lot of turnovers in possession, therefore preventing Portsmouth from being able to sustain any pressure on the Sunderland defence.

Portsmouth turn the tide

After the initial scrappy first 25 minutes of the game, Portsmouth slowly began to look the more dangerous side without creating too many goal scoring opportunities. They were still placing a greater emphasis on long balls into Hawkins, but they now had midfielders closer to him to win the second balls and therefore maintain the attacks.

When Portsmouth reached the final third, they were keen to get the ball into wide areas and look to cross the ball into the box. With the aerial threat of Hawkins, this was a clear plan to unsettle the Sunderland defence.

EFL League 1 2018/19 Tactical Analysis Statistics: Portsmouth vs Sunderland
Brown with space to cross into Hawkins.

Portsmouth’s best opportunity fell to Gareth Evans with a free header six yards out that he headed straight at Jon McLaughlin. The ball broke to Lee Brown who crossed the ball onto the head of Hawkins, who cleverly picked out the run from deep from Evans, who should have put Portsmouth ahead. From the resulting corner, Matt Clarke rose from the corner and headed the ball down into the ground and onto the crossbar and over.

Sunderland wrestle control

The second half saw Sunderland finally gain a level of composure led by Leadbitter and Lee Cattermole who helped to maintain possession. Despite the fact they weren’t creating opportunities from this Sunderland were able to keep the ball for long periods of time most often in the Portsmouth half of the pitch. This prevented Portsmouth from applying any concerted pressure on the Sunderland defence.

Sunderland were mainly able to keep possession on the right-hand side of the pitch, which may in part have been a reaction to Lowe’s introduction on Portsmouth’s right side. By building up on the opposite side to Lowe, they ensured that should they lose possession they wouldn’t be exposed on the counter-attack, with Evans not possessing the same level of pace.

The inclusion of an extra midfielder provided Sunderland with numerical superiority in the middle of the pitch, which enabled them to better control possession in the second half. With a midfield three of Leadbitter, Cattermole and Max Power, against two Portsmouth midfielders, they were able to control the key central area of the pitch. With Sunderland having numerical superiority in central areas this encouraged Portsmouth to place a greater emphasis on getting the ball into wide areas.

Portsmouth’s wide focus

Portsmouth focused upon getting the ball into wide areas to provide crosses into the box for the aerial threat of Hawkins. In possession, both fullbacks pushed high up the pitch. With Solomon-Otabor playing on the left and being right footed he tended to drift infield which enabled Brown to overlap and provide crosses into the box. Evans on the opposite side stayed wider which meant that Nathan Thompson at right back had fewer opportunities to overlap.

With crosses coming into the box towards Hawkins, Portsmouth looked to get numbers into the area. Brett Pitman, who was operating behind Hawkins, added numbers to the box but isn’t well known for his heading ability. The quality of balls into the box were often poor with them being crossed from deeper areas instead of working the ball towards the byline.


This was a scrappy match that suited Sunderland as they were able to prevent Portsmouth from creating any attacking momentum throughout the game. Save for the 20 minutes before half time where Sunderland were put under some pressure they were able to withstand any pressure from Portsmouth.

Sunderland move on to face Charlton in the playoff final at Wembley for a place in the Championship at the first time of asking in what will surely be a better quality match than this one.

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