Sunderland’s high line is starting to bear fruit for Lee Johnson

Two games into the League One season, and with a 100% record, Sunderland appear to be playing with a clear identity. Graeme Atkinson takes a look at the data.

“I think where you can have a pre-season, develop as a squad, build on performances and actually select the pathway to work those individual pieces of the game model.”

Lee Johnson

There’s been a lot of noise surrounding the club’s transfer window activity. Yet, away from the comings and goings off the pitch, the emerging tactical changes on it should be of greater interest to supporters.

Lee Johnson has now had his pre season to work with the squad. It’s something, which he made clear shortly after his arrival that he wanted, to truly effect change.

The summer has allowed him that much needed time to start fully embedding his methods from a standing start rather than part way through the season. And, as a result, there are signs that this is beginning to bear some fruit.

The high line

Of particular importance here is Sunderland’s effective high defensive line.

Some of the ‘park the bus’ football we’ve all had to endure at times still feels lasered onto my retinas so to see a far more dynamic and advanced style of play coming to life before my eyes is a welcome sight.

The high line is a tactic that we’ve seen glimpses of under Johnson before with varying degrees of success. But, although the new season is embryonic, it now seems far more effective.

As a result it’s quietly but positively impacting our entire style of play.

Yes, I know we’ve only had two games but, significantly, moving further up the pitch is evidently benefiting the team. Some obvious stats to through at you – we’ve achieved a match goals average of 3 and penalties won are two in two. Remember, we only won 6 pens in the entirety of the 2019/20 campaign. It’s also seen us have an average of 15 shots up from last season’s overall average of 10.66.

The challenge now, clearly, is to maintain this.

Signing the right players for the system

Johnson’s aspiration from the outset appears to have been about bringing together a team capable of being both skilful and cohesive, in terms of defending high, whilst also having the ability to recover quickly should the space behind be exposed. It’s something we all wanted to see.

Crucially, at last, we’re signing footballers who fit this profile.

You only have to take a cursory glance at the pace of Callum Doyle, Dennis Cirkin and now with Frederik Alves, to see just what Johnson’s game plan is. Clearly the intention is to condense the play in the opposition’s half and overload their defence with our key attacking players.

As touched on above, let’s give Johnson credit, this approach is not new here. You can see it has been an evolving style for him rather than a complete change for the new campaign.

Last season after Johnson joined, Sunderland began to press high up the pitch and the intensity with which they did so in comparison to the Parkinson era was stark.

For example, the PPDA (pass allowed per defensive action) metric fluctuated wildly under Parky, yet following Johnson’s arrival the number dropped to around a steady 5, enough to rival stats seen under Bielsa at Leeds United.

However, last season’s version of the high press wasn’t maintained throughout games. Perhaps a symptom of both the lack of time Johnson had with the squad and the attributes of the players he then had at his disposal. A work in progress, you might say.

Now, marrying a high press with a high defensive line has been a minor tweak. But, combining all the components together now introduces the likes of McGeady, Embleton, Pritchard, Gooch, Diamond, Hawkes and Stewart into the game more frequently, allowing them the opportunity to play to their strengths more often.

A simple but highly effective play, with the right personnel.

Jury out on Lee Burge

Of course an area of concern when playing a high defensive line is between the sticks. Goalkeepers can often be left exposed and in Lee Burge the jury is still out on whether he is up to a promotion push.

A Jordan Pickford-esque keeper would instead be ideal as we continue on this evolving tactical journey. That ‘sweeper keeper’ capable of mopping up and making the long pass is perhaps on Speakman’s shopping list for the future.

Sunderland will concede goals as a result of the dicier brand of football.

Opposition teams will try to exploit us by firing balls in behind and turning our defenders the wrong way. However, with the likes of Cirkin, Doyle and Alves, there is now more pace in defence than at any time since, well, so long I can’t remember. There should now be a greater chance of recovery tackles when required.

So, as we’ve already witnessed, the high defensive line is an approach not without risk. There will be mistakes made as the players continue to adapt. But, an alternative is the sit deep and counter attack style of play.

I don’t think any of us would be happy with that.

Graeme Atkinson