Keir’s Kalculations: Crosses and Catastrophe

Keir Bradwell
Keir Bradwell

John McCormick writes:
Keir Bradwell needed to take a break but now he’s back. And not only is he back, he’s bigger and better. With the help of Opta and the FourFourTwo StatsZone app he’s produced a nice analysis of the game last weekend and has some suggestions to offer


After the home loss to Norwich, it’s clear to every Sunderland fan that something is wrong with the club. And while we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors that has put us in such a mess, we can analyse what’s going wrong on the pitch. Having examined the statistics after the game, I think a few things are clear:

This map shows every pass attempted in the attacking third of the pitch for each team. Blue passes are ones that found their target, red passes were unsuccessful and light blue ones are ‘chances created’.

Sunderland passes in the attacking third
Sunderland passes in the attacking third. (Click on graphics to enlarge them)
Norwich passes in the attacking third
Norwich passes in the attacking third. All images ©Opta

Three things should stand out:

  • The lack of attempted passes being perhaps the foremost concern. At home to Norwich you’d expect to be dominating this stat – but instead Norwich attempted more than double the amount of passes in the final third.
  • The second thing here is the pass accuracy – just 35 times during the entire game did one Sunderland team-mate find another in the attacking third. That’s slightly more than one every three minutes. No wonder did we fail to create chances – not only did we attempt less than half the attacking passes Norwich did, we managed to connect with a quarter of their total.
  • Also worth noting is that it’s worth looking at just how many long-ball passes we attempted (and failed) that make up our tally of 84. This is something we’ll look at later on but it shows how few short attacking passes were played during the game, definitely one of the key reasons we lost so heavily.

Sunderland’s crossing is almost as poor as their passing:

Sunderland crosses
Sunderland crosses
Lens Crosses
Lens Crosses

Sunderland attempted 14 crosses during the match, with just three being successful and two chances being created. Jeremain Lens attempted half of those crosses, but made all of the successful crosses. That means that the rest of the team combined crossed as many times as Lens but not a single one found their man. In fairness to the rest of the team, Jermaine Defoe is a very small target to aim for in the middle of the park but you have to wonder what the rest of the team is playing at when Lens has single-handedly produced every successful cross during the game. You have to look at Dick’s tactics here – while he’s rumoured to be in for a target man this summer, his failure to adapt to the squad he has with him is one of the reasons we created so few chances during the game.

M’Vila had a much better debut than first thought:

M'vila passes
M’vila passes
M'vila ball recoveries
M’vila ball recoveries

Yann M’Vila was certainly the best midfielder on the pitch for us– as evidenced by these stats: M’Vila completed almost a fifth of the entire team’s passes (266 were all that were completed by us in total, Norwich completed just 3 less than we even attempted, with 382). While our average pass completion rate works out as 69%, M’Vila completed 96% of his. And look how scattered around they are – he was an influence all over the pitch. His passing was by far the best in the team, with Cattermole next best on 80%. He also made 12 ball recoveries – more than any other Sunderland player. This is exactly the sort of midfielder we’ve been crying out for – someone who can win the ball and lay it off with accuracy. Cattermole was once this player for us, but as we shall see in a moment, he is much less effective than he used to be. Now for an attacking midfielder, Ellis.

We’re leaking goals because the midfield (M’Vila aside) is offering very little protection:

Larsson interceptions
Larsson interceptions
Cattermole tackles
Cattermole tackles

Not even much to say here, these speak for themselves.

Larsson managed one interception all game, Cattermole completed just a fifth of his tackles. While the back four (and PvA especially) are to blame for the woeful defending, they need protection from the midfield. And Larsson and Cattermole simply aren’t offering that at the moment. Is it any surprise that when two of our better performers from last season are out of form that our performances drop so much?

Route One tactics with Defoe up front don’t work.

Sunderland long passes
Sunderland long passes
Bassong headed clearances
Bassong headed clearances

This is absolutely down to the tactical set-up Advocaat used, and it’s the ultimate reason we were comprehensively outplayed and outclassed on the day. A huge amount of long balls were played during the game (relative to the small amount of passes played during the game) and literally not a single one aimed centrally found their man. Balls out to the wing were quite successful but look at all those red arrows pointing towards the Norwich goal – there’s no way Defoe is going to be able to out-jump Martin and Bassong at the back – as evidenced by the 11 out of 11 successful headed clearances by the latter and 8 out 8 of from the former. Another example of Advocaat failing to adapt to the squad, although if we’re able to sign a target man this window then we should be a much better team as a result.

All images copyright ©OPTA Sports.com. We gratefully acknowledge their kind permission to reproduce them

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7 thoughts on “Keir’s Kalculations: Crosses and Catastrophe”

  1. The constant referral to Defoe being the target is conveniently forgetting Fletcher was on the pitch, he was the ‘target man’ not Defoe, and Bassong in particular completely dominated him. The formation to start the game was clearly a standard 4-4-2, the formation which finished the Leicester game.
    Don’t get me wrong, I can absolutely understand forgetting Fletcher was on the pitch, given his overall contribution, but he was there and that makes the criticism of advocaat’s formation a little weaker. What worried me more was bringing graham on and putting Defoe on the wing to accommodate him! Shall we compare their premier league goal records…?

    • I think during the game Fletcher and Defoe swapped positions quite regularly, but Fletcher played on the right wing for a chunk of the game and that’s what frustrates me – if Advocaat decides he wants to continue with long ball tactics then Fletcher should be starting up top every day of the week, for me. He’s wasted out wide and Defoe couldn’t challenge Bassong and Martin during the game at all. Again, it’s not the formation (formations are a poor representation of tactics anyway) it’s the style of play that I have issue with.

  2. Interesting data presented but can’t help feeling the analysis is missing something. Also the conclusion with regards to Advocaat’s formation set being the cause of our problems is not absolutely clear to me as I fail to see how that conclusion can be drawn from the limited data shown. For example the data presented is not showing players positions on the field relative to where Advocaat instructed them to be.
    Nevertheless the data does highlight our abysmal passing accuracy something that needs to be addressed.
    Well done Keir for the excellent work and interesting food for thought and discussion. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks for the kind words! Explanations on a couple of things here: it’s not the formation that’s the problem, it’s the players chosen relative to Dick’s style of football. Defoe is simply the wrong man to play route one football with. 4-3-3 is a formation I think suits the squad well but big long balls up to a lone striker are never going to work out very well.

      • So many modern (and I’m talking about 60s and later) formations are slightly differing ways of getting more work out of the players who used to be called “wingers” or “outside rights/lefts”. There’s not really a lot of difference between 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 4-5-1. For me, it’s a choice between one of these and 4-4-2 (which is itself just a way of makng the wingers in a 4-2-4 do more work).

        Gus’s first teams at the end of 2013/2014 when he saved us were based on the work rate of Fabio Borini and Adam Johnson who were the two wide players in the “3” of a 4-2-3-1 (or widest of the 5 of a 4-5-1 arguably depending on what we consider Larsson’s role to have been). If these two had played more up the field we may well have been relegated because there’d have been more pressure on the back four. Had they played more defensively the chances of Wickham scoring those goals would have been lessened leading to the same result.

        I really have no idea what we’re doing this season but whatever it is it should be to maximise the workrate of the whole team. Also we aren’t, as I understand, getting our defensive running lines correct. I suspect the players are going out there with too little understanding of what they should be doing. We should have carried on from where we left off last season and changed things only when they proved themselves on the training ground. Captain & coach need to be on the same wavelength.

    • What’s missing from all sporting statistics is the value of work done off the ball. Until we can find a way of incorporating such data we can draw only limited conclusions from current stats. Current stats do have value but we must be very careful about interpretation.

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