In the first playoff experience since 2004 for Sunderland, they took on Portsmouth in an intense encounter at the Stadium of light. Their last meeting between Portsmouth and Sunderland ended in a 1-1 draw in a League 1 match in April.

Both sides came into the match with many similarities. Poor form, a 4-2-3-1 setup and a burning desire to join the second division of English league football. In the end, the game was decided by their differences, with this analysis breaking down the tactical differences that resulted in Sunderland gaining the three points.


The League 1 semi-final first leg started off on a sour note. Sunderland’s player of the year, Aiden McGeady, was ruled out in the warm-up. Lyden Gooch took up his place in the side. In other team news, Sunderland stuck with Charlie Wyke up top instead of Will Grigg.

First half

The first portion of the game lacked any ebb or flow with the game full of frantic duels and no risk play. Both sides started in high fervour with Portsmouth pressing high and rapidly when in transition. Sunderland were in a no-frills mood and cleared their lines with regularity often looking for the out ball long into Wyke.

Sunderland establish a counter press

In many senses, these were two very similarly organised sides and it seemed as though it would become a man for man contest with each formation somewhat cancelling the other out. Both sides were 4-2-3-1 in possession, sat in a 4-4-1-1 medium block and looked to play with minimal risk, not engaging in any first phase build up moments. After the ten-minute mark, however, we saw the key differences emerge. Sunderland started to win more second balls and establish a strong counter pressing structure. They rarely started play from the back, relying on their ability to win the second balls in order to establish possession in the mid third.

A large number of counter pressing sides tend to establish their off-ball structure through slow build-up play, but rather Sunderland relied on the tremendous individual qualities of Max Power and especially Lee Cattermole in picking up the second balls.

Portsmouth interestingly were quite happy to concede territory after losing the second ball, allowing Sunderland to have possession in the middle third. However, as soon as Sunderland were in potential crossing territory, Portsmouth applied excellent pressure on the ball carrier to block any potential crosses. This came at frustration to Sunderland who piled the box with significant numbers.

Sunderland started to find their rhythm and we could see some further team shape formulating. Sunderland in the majority of possession play formed an asymmetrical shape with Bryan Oviedo going high and Lewis Morgan coming inside. Gooch and Luke O’Nien would take up more traditional approaches. O’Nien would stay deeper with Gooch high and wide on the wing. This created a two central attacking midfielder (CAM) situation for Sunderland with George Honeyman and Morgan occupying the half spaces.

Sunderland’s asymmetrical positioning with Morgan and Honeyman as CAM’s and Oviedo as a winger.

We saw the majority of Sunderland’s long balls going down the right-hand side, as Gooch was accessible for the flick on in behind. This was not possible on the other side due to Lewis Morgan’s inner positioning.

The shape of Sunderland was the main theme of the match. Portsmouth’s play was more reactive allowing Sunderland to take the initiative. Pompey’s main focus in reaction to Sunderland was to hit the spaces left by Oviedo with Oliver Hawkins running into them.

Hawkin’s seeking the room left by Oviedo

This was largely ineffective as Hawkins didn’t have the pace to get away from Alim Ozturk. This coupled with Sunderland’s compact counter pressing structure meant Portsmouth struggled to establish themselves. Their excellent wide men were found regularly deep and occupied with high levels of defensive responsibility. This in tandem with a quick transition from Portsmouth meant the wide men struggled to affect the game. The switch of sides from Ronan Curtis and Jamal Lowe seemed to signal this.

The frustration for Sunderland was in their inability to deliver regularly into the box. Whenever they did, they looked dangerous. All in all, the first half was largely void of quality and major chances.

Second half

The second half started in a similar vein to the tail end of the first half, with Sunderland steering and controlling the match. Sunderland showed further improvements from the break, adding a variety of rotations in order to destabilize Portsmouth and progress up the pitch.

On occasions, O’Nien, Honeyman, Cattermole and Gooch/Morgan would show excellent positional awareness with each other to progress the ball. Morgan moved out to the right in the second half and O`Nien started to become more aggressive in his positioning. Sunderland were extremely attacking leaving only the two centre backs and mainly Power in defence. This led to further domination for Sunderland and control of the match.

The first goal came in no surprising fashion through a cross into the box. It is clear Sunderland aim to get the ball from wide areas into the box through crossing.  You can clearly see Cattermole’s trigger movement to surge late into the box just before delivery.

As stated earlier, Sunderland regularly fill the box with a good number of players even including right back O’Nien.  This meant when the ball came into the box, it fell to Sunderland man Chris Maguire. The man affectionately known as ‘The King’ by Sunderland fans smacked it into the net with a first-time volley.

Sunderland, shortly after the goal, gave an exposé on the risks of a counter pressing strategy. Whilst Manchester City make it look easy, it only takes one poorly addressed counter-attack to break through a counter pressing structure.

With O’Nien charging forward and Oviedo advanced on the opposite side, Portsmouth broke into the space vacated by Oviedo. Instead of keeping Hawkins wide, which would have stifled the attack, Flanagan allowed Hawkins to play back inside, exposing the space vacated by O’Nien who couldn’t return in time. Gareth Evans exploited the hole and was sithed down by Ozturk near the penalty area. In a dubious decision, the referee, Andy Woolmer sent Ozturk off for the denial of a goal-scoring opportunity.

Sunderland down to ten men

As they always do, red cards change games and this one indeed altered the landscape of the match. Sunderland brought on Dunne for Gooch, with the Burnley loanee slotting in at centre back and Honeyman moving to RW to achieve a 4-4-1 formation for Sunderland.

Sunderland were happy to sit in for the remaining 30 minutes and were largely untroubled by a Portsmouth side who had no real method to breaking down Sunderland. Matt Clarke was found regularly bombing on forward to little effect.

Portsmouth were quite poor positionally in the last 30 minutes of the game and struggled to recognise the areas in which they could exploit Sunderland. There were significant gaps between the lines for Sunderland which Portsmouth failed to exploit. They rarely had players filling in the huge holes that were appearing as Sunderland’s midfield defended in a wide fashion.

Both Naylor and Close would regularly drop out into the backline, whilst the wingers would largely stay high and wide. With only Evans in between the lines occasionally, Portsmouth did not occupy the half spaces.

Portsmouth failed to position individuals in the gaps of Sunderland’s defensive structure.

Portsmouth played straight into the wide congested areas, a key reason why they couldn’t break Sunderland down. Sunderland played out a terrific performance, with a professional last 30 minutes in order to enter the second leg with a 1-0 advantage.

Looking back on the match, Sunderland fans will feel extremely confident going into the second leg. They grew in stature throughout the first 60 minutes and showed some excellent tactical structures in order to control large parts of the game. They will be looking to add to their long spells of possession with some more refined avenues of chance creation.

On the other hand, Portsmouth should be worried on viewing of that first leg display. Their lack of presence on the counter-attack must have been a worry for Kenny Jackett. This compounded with their inability to trouble a side with only ten men means there is lots of work to undertake this week on the training ground for Pompey.