Once again Harry Redknapp chopped and changed in terms of formation, selection and even strategy. First, the 4-1-2-3 shape that brought him success in the last game against Southampton was replaced by more of a 4-4-2, which looked like 4-2-2-2 given the wide men were playing on their wrong foot and looked to move infield all the time. Then there were four changes in the starting XI with only one of them forced – Julio Cesar remained injured, so Green started instead. Traore was replaced by Fabio at the left back and was left out of the game completely. Granero made place for Townsend while Bothroyd was benched in favour of Zamora.
On the other side O’Neill kept exactly the same XI and continued playing with the 4-4-2 used in the recent weeks.
QPR dominating the first half
In principle neither of the teams is capable of offering the technical expertise and creativity on the ball to use the possession as a form of dominance and attacking capability. Hence this match was always going to be less about possession and more about urgency and intensity on and off the ball; solid, old-schooled, defending and meaningful attacks based on quick transitions. Based on these criteria it had to be said the home team largely did better and dominated the first half. In a way it was to be expected to be that way, given QPR’s need of wins and points following their quest to spring a miraculous relegation escape. So to see them being the team that dominated the territory and created the more dangerous attacking moves wasn’t a big surprise.
Although the shape of both teams was different, broadly speaking the players as types but in terms of what they were expected to give were exactly the same. Both sets of full-backs (although, interestingly, Sunderland’s are midfielders by trade) pushed forward to support their wide partners but they rarely overlapped the wingers and moved beyond them. It was a case of whenever the wingers moved forward the full-backs quickly pushed on to always be in touch with them and offer that dual wide presence. As neither of the teams were passing out of the back the full-backs rarely spent time in deeper areas in terms of receiving and just passing the ball around. This largely contributed to both teams looking to quickly morph into their attacking shapes and carry the ball forward quickly.
Interestingly there was some diversity in how the full-backs acted on each flank. Fabio and Gardner were more active in terms of pushing forward. With Hoilett often being narrow in position hence unable to track back as effectively initially, Gardner had the space to surge forward. This worked the other way around as with the Sunderland’s full-back being so active – Hoilett a few times had too much on the break. Meanwhile Fabio was similarly brave in his forward runs, which contributed to him often being in position to help Hoilett and make a 2-v-1 advantage down the flank (due to Sessegnon’s reluctance to follow him so deep). But this also meant Sessegnon had time and space to receive the ball and he quickly became the key player for Sunderland because of that.
On the opposite flanks the case was slightly different. With Johnson and Townsend staying predominantly wider Bosingwa and Colback respectively had no choice but to keep their positioning a little bit deeper. Perhaps they felt with the other flank boosted by their team’s more active full-backs there is no real need for them to push as actively. This is understandable for Colback as whenever Townsend received the ball he first tried to beat his man on the outside and then cut infield. But with Sunderland oriented to the right flank and Johnson rarely used on the left flank it was strange to see Bosingwa (the most attacking fullback of all by nature) so reluctant to step forward and help his team stretch the play. With Sessegnon so active it would’ve been a better idea Fabio to stick a bit deeper and allow Bosingwa to be the more active of QPR’s fullbacks.
The other similarity was in relation to the midfielders of each team. They largely sat deeper and were focused on just knocking the ball from side to side. Rarely, if ever, did they attempt any other passes other than simple sideways passes. This was logical in that both teams lacked either a proper deep-lying playmaker who to dictate the play from deeper or player who was happy to break the lines, step forward and create from advanced positions. Another reason was that both teams had a target man dropping deep into the space between the lines. Plus, with the team focused to use the flanks as their primary source of creativity and attacking players it was understandable why the midfielders were tasked with rather passive roles on and off the ball.
Up front both teams had a classic target man, playing with the back to the goal and looking to bring people in via his knock-downs and passes. Not only that but by being left-footed playing over the right side of the pitch both Zamora and Fletcher acted in an extremely identical manner. Their left footedness meant whenever they received the ball they would turn over their left side and open up their body in a way so that they were able to see the majority of the pitch infield. This helped them become an even bigger influence, constantly seeking to go into passing combinations with their teammates. Also, they both looked to drop deep and influence the play from between the lines before turning over and bursting forward to join their teams’ attacks into the box.
All of these similarities between the teams largely contributed to the game being rather tactically dull and technically sloppy. However, it was the differences that provided the spark and the general excitement.
The first thing that tactically divided the teams was how both sets of wide players were tasked to act. For the away team Johnson and Sessegnon kept their positions wide, affected by the fact they were playing on their natural sides. But because of it was the pair of Gardner-Sessegnon used more by Sunderland it was the right flank the more active, hence the team became lopsided. In that this was the less solid QPR’s flank defensively it was good. But in terms of balance and surprise it could be said this largely nullified Sunderland’s threat. All of this was magnified by the fact Fletcher was playing to the right too. And given he and Sessegnon were the players receiving the ball most often (21 times each in the first half) Sunderland became heavily lopsided to their right flank. That Sunderland’s overloading on the right flank forced Clint Hill to pull wide often to try and cover the inside channel. Few times this left gaps in behind him and had Sunderland had a midfield runner that space could’ve been easily exploited.
For the home team, both Hoilett and Townsend were playing inverted, which contributed to them looking to move infield. This meant QPR were able to send more bodies in and around the box, which enabled them to create more and better attacking moves in the last third. Although in essence they both looked to eventually cut infield after receiving the ball, their overall behaviour was different which brought nice diversity. As hinted above, Townsend initially kept his wide position, looking to get past his man and only then look to move infield to pass or shoot. In the first half he attempted six dribbles with five of them being on the outside. Meantime Hoilett was more inclined to occupy narrow positions and act as the more direct attacking player off the ball. It was him who twice received the ball on the verge of the box to shoot dangerously.
The other difference was in relation to the target men’s partner up front. For Sunderland Graham is in the Fletcher mould having the same strengths and style of play. But crucially both strikers are having the same weaknesses – lack of pace and mobility – which prevent them to offer the required diversity as a unit. Both of them are more comfortable to drop deep and play with the back to the goal before storming forward in order to act as the team’s main consumer. The lack of pace means neither of them is capable to work the channels and provide the lateral movement to complement each other.
Here the problem was overly obvious. With Fletcher used in the deep-lying target man role (which he executed quite well) it was Graham who was expected to provide that extra dimension. But his lack of pace meant he was unable to work the channels in order to stretch QPR’s defence before targeting the resulted gaps. Generally speaking he remained too stationary up front and given he was closely followed by Samba in the majority of the time he remained pretty much isolated of the play. He neither had the pace to beat his marker on the run, nor had the physical presence to outmuscle him in a direct contest.
On the other side the type of player Remy is perfectly fit to the profile of partner Zamora would have liked to play with. The Frenchman possesses that burning pace and acceleration to act as the speedster who could latch on his partners knock downs and passes. Using his mobility Remy was constantly on the move, drifting wide and forcing Sunderland’s defenders to be on the move too, which also benefited the in cutting wingers. Remy was constantly contributing to his team overall attacking threat, while Graham’s lack of presence made Sunderland looking as they were playing with one man down.
All of this had different impact on Zamora and Fletcher’s respective efficiency. Although Fletcher received the ball enough times and was his usual self in the air (winning 8 out of his 15 aerial battles in the first half) he was simply starved of options. With the wingers staying wider, his forward partner stationary and isolated and lack of midfield runners he just lacked support. Whenever he received the ball, he was forced to either pass backward or lose the ball as he tried to pass forward as he was quickly crowded.
Zamora on the other hand had the opposite faith. With the wingers often infield and Remy constantly on the move, he had proper attacking support. Although the midfielders didn’t offer pure forward runs they at least remained in touch with front quartet as whenever the team moved in attack they followed in order the team to be compact. From the chalkboard below it could be seen how by staying in between all of these options he passed to them proportionally.
Not only this, but with QPR generally dominating, especially when it comes to territory, and his partners offering him constant support and options, Zamora’s own role was double efficient. He acted both as the creator and the consumer. Initially he dropped deeper, influencing his team from between the lines. There he received the ball and directed his team’s attacks. Then as the attacks continued (in contrast to Sunderland as Fletcher often lost the ball due to the lack of options, hence their attacking moves quickly broke down) Zamora turned and burst into the box to add another attacking body, acting as the secondary finisher.
Two situations in particular perfectly illustrated Zamora’s dual role. In the 16th minute he was between the lines, laying the ball over the left for Hoilett. Then as the winger carried the ball forward the target-man quickly turned and pushed into the box to receive the return pass (which was a cross in this case) only for him to slightly fail to reach the ball. Then the situation in the 34th minute showed Zamora in his capacity as creator. Here Hoilett crossed a well weighed cross to the far post, where Zamora knocked down the ball to Remy who although completely unmarked and in a very good position placed his volley way over the bar.
Another crucial thing following QPR’s complementing forward duo – and attacking quartet as a whole – was the constant confusion and worry they inflicted upon Sunderland’s defensive line. It was a classic tactical dilemma for the away team. Should they drop deep and defend against the mobility and the trickery of Remy and the two inverted wide men; but leave Zamora free to first dictate his team’s build-up play from between the lines and then have an easy ride heading into the box to challenge both in the air and on the ground? Or should they push up to try and limit Zamora’s influence, but risk leaving too many gaps in behind and down the channels, especially given the lack of mobility in their centre-back pair? Suffice to say this was as close to an impossible riddle to deal with as it could’ve been.
What Sunderland actually tried to do during the whole first half was to be flexible and deal with the problem situation by situation, not as a whole. Sometimes they dropped deeper, sometimes they pushed up. But this constant changing of their defensive approach in a period when they were the team put under pressure and forced to predominantly defend didn’t really work out for them. By choosing to drop deep they left themselves vulnerable to Zamora’s influence that simply dragged QPR forward and simply increased the pressure on them. Then the following moment when they tried to push up they were too easily beaten by pace and gifted too much space, especially for QPR’s in cutting wingers.
With QPR’s better cohesion and fluid attacking patterns of play it wasn’t a surprise they dominated proceedings during the first half. They didn’t create several clear cut chances, but had enough dangerous moments by simply dominating the territory and being the better team when it came to attacking. A problem was that the majority of their created chances (in fact all but two) came from outside the box, mainly due to wingers being too trigger happy to shoot whenever they were closer to the box. There weren’t enough times when the team would create chain of passes in the last third, using the fluidity and diversity of the front four unit to work the ball little bit more in order to stretch the opposition’s defence better. Still this was logical as three of the four players are more of a dribblers and the fourth is a pure target-man counting on knock downs and lay-offs in order to create. QPR simply didn’t have the creativity and the ability to pass the ball neatly and patiently throughout their whole team to break down the opposition by being patient and using their possession.
And as often happens, when one of the team is generally dominating and attacking, the other is scoring the opening goal out of nothing against the run of the play. Sunderland did just that in the 20th minute, when following an indirect free-kick situation in their third they managed to steal the ball and break forward down the right flank. Sessegnon was the key man dribbling to the byline before sending good cross on the far post where the unmarked Johnson tried to half-volley the ball. The left winger was lucky enough that his badly accurate shoot-cum-cross was fortunately tapped into the back of the net by Fletcher.
After the goal QPR had a few minutes of trying to find their previous mood and attacking spark back. What helped them do that was the fact now the fullbacks seemed even more determined to support their wide partners and the midfielders rotated who to step that little bit higher up and offer another body in and around the last third. Still it was generally M’bia who did that, using his physicality and energy to constantly burst up and down the midfield area. As a result twice he popped up around the D-zone to shoot dangerously, but both times off target.
However, then minutes after the opening goal QPR managed to equalise with a similarly fortunate goal. Townsend once again pulled infield from the right flank, his shot rebounded off O’Shea’s foot and head into Remy’s path who found it easy to score by sending the ball to the far post. Still it should be noted that in the minutes preceding the goal QPR managed to put Sunderland under increased pressure and as the saying goes – the goal was coming.
After the goal Remy had other two chances. After the second one (the one discussed above in relation to Zamora’s input as creator) O’Neill made a tactical change. He swapped Graham and Sessegnon, tweaking the shape to 4-4-1-1. Perhaps the idea was to provide an additional body in midfield and try to withstand the increasing QPR’s attacks and drastically increased possession (at one time it reached the 77% mark). But in reality it only served to introduce Graham to the match, albeit in a purely defensive role as he tracked back better, while Sessegnon’s presence in the hole quite limited the times he managed to get hold on the ball.
Sunderland spring into life
The away team started the second half by reverting Graham and Sessegnon and having back the initial 4-4-2 formation. But there were two other changes that proved crucial.
First, Sunderland seemed much more determined to keep the ball and just pass it around. Second, they chose to play with a higher defensive line. Both changes were pivotal in the way the away team managed to restrict the previous home teams’ dominance. Keeping the ball, Sunderland pinned back the whole QPR team who now had to more often spend time in their defensive shape with the wide players much deeper. The high defensive line helped in that it further more pushed back the home team’s attacking quartet. Plus, by squeezing the space between the lines and as a whole in the midfield area now Zamora’s influence was drastically limited. This furthermore helped QPR’s attacking possession almost entirely vanish, which additionally pinned back their wide men. The home team had no other choice but to simply hit direct balls up front with the hope the forward players would manage to do something on their own.
Of course, O’Neill’s decision bore some risk in that given the three speedsters in QPR’s front line, on paper the home team needed only a couple of chances to send one of them in behind to beat the defenders for pace and have a potential one on one with the Mignolet. But most probably following the first half, Sunderland’s manager decided the actual danger and key QPR man was Zamora. This was logical as his dual role and general presence was the real platform for every of the home team’s attacks.
All of this didn’t mean Sunderland suddenly became an attacking proposition themselves, or that they managed to fix the problems in relation to the ongoing lack of support for Fletcher and the lack of any input from Graham. But their perceived aim to minimise the size of QPR’s dominance largely played out well. But it was somehow disappointing that Sunderland failed to take advantage of their increased possession and new found rather dominant position. Perhaps it was good idea to swap their wingers and have them in cutting in order to get more bodies closer to the forward duo, but especially near Fletcher who remained the player receiving the ball more often. This could have helped the team increase the probability of constructing attacking team moves and threat QPR in the last third.
Second half changes
The change came in the 57th minute – Rose replaced Graham and the shape reverted to the usual for Sunderland this season 4-4-1-1. There were additional tweaks. With Rose now at left back Colback went in midfield with Larsson now on the right flank as Sessegnon occupied the space behind Fletcher. The biggest change following this was now Sunderland finally restore some sort of balance and weren’t as lopsided as before. However, both Sessegnon and Fletcher continued to play to the right of the centre as Larsson played more of a deeper and passive role on the right flank. And still, the visitors failed to capitalise on their dominance during their best spell in the match as they simply didn’t create any decent goal scoring chance.
That’s why it could be argued whether the incoming player or the subsequent tweaks were the most suitable. If O’Neill was insistent on introducing Rose he could have Colback in midfield but at least swap the wingers in order to provide some much needed diversity. Now his team was looking particularly ‘standard’ in that it had two wide players, and split forwards but without anything resembling fluidity in midfield or in attack – an inverted winger could have helped on that front. Another possibility was to introduce push Colback, in order to make room for Rose at left back, tucked in on the left flank and keep Larsson infield in order to have at least one of the wide players inverted to provide more diversity. Having Johnson wrong-footed on the right would have coincided with Gardner seemingly being the more active going forward.
Meanwhile QPR’s struggled to do anything more than simply keep their defensive shape and solidity and minimise the chance of Sunderland’s dominance resulting in some dangerous moments for their ‘keeper. The front four unit struggled on their own mainly due to the Sunderland’s approach in the second half, but the other reason was that their midfielders couldn’t get hold of the ball in order to calm start and level the possession battle. That’s why it was surprising Redknapp didn’t attempt anything in order to help his team. It was hard to point to a change that he could have done with that XI other than perhaps asking his team to step forward and try to fight back by pressing Sunderland more. But arguably he had the suitable players on the bench to introduce and influence the current tactical context.
One potential variant was to replace one of the midfielders (probably Park as it was difficult to see what he actually contributed – he neither passed or pushed forward, his defensive presence was not crucial as too often he was easily dragged out of position) and introduce Granero in order to provide some much needed passing ability and vision to try and get hold on the ball. The alternative was to replace Zamora as with him just get back from yet another injury, he quickly tired and this even more decreased his ability to influence his team’s play as in the first half. The variants for his replacement were two. Redknapp could’ve utilised Bothroyd as a similar type of player to try and refresh the forward duo in order to gain the previous advantage. Or seeing how that type of player is now having less of an input due to the high Sunderland’s defensive line and focus to compress the midfield area the introduction of different type of forward arguably was more useful. Mackie, by being a hard-working player who is having the habit to drop deep and join the build-up play when his team is in possession. When without the ball he has the energy to press hard and try to force the opposition into mistakes and rash passes. Ideally Redknapp would have attempted both changes, but in reality he did nothing.
Anyway, as in the first half, when one of the teams was generally dominating the other found a way to score a goal against the run of the play (although it should be noted that in the minutes before the goal QPR started to look brighter). In the 70th minute QPR had an indirect free kick. Following the situation from it the ball fell to Townsend just outside the box who, with all the space and time, sent what was an unstoppable and beautifully angled long shot back into the net.
If it could be said that Redknapp’s reaction to his team struggles into the second half was disappointingly passive and absent, it’s fair to note his decisions following his team going ahead in the score line were impressively suitable given the now changed context of the game. Three minutes after the goal Zamora was finally replaced – in came Mackie who immediately showed his willingness to press out of possession and drop deep to join the build-up play with short passes when in possession. This served QPR well in order to have a fresh player capable to fight hard when his team was with and without the ball. Then in the 78th minute Wright-Phillips replaced Hoilett who like Zamora started to tired due to lack of proper match sharpness. Crucially Redknapp swapped his wingers in order to have them on their natural sides with the aim them to drop back and form a proper secondary back of four when out of possession. Lastly, in the 81st minute Jenas replaced Remy in order to change the shape to more of a flat 4-5-1 for QPR to have nine men behind the ball. This change proved successful also in that it was Jenas who scored the third goal in the 90th minute. Similarly to the second goal, but this time following a corner kick, the cleared ball fell his way and again by being poorly marked (as in the previous situation Sunderland didn’t have a single player guarding the D-zone) he sent another rocket past Mignolet.
Meanwhile O’Neill’s additional two subs were unsurprisingly unimaginative and lacking inspiration or any kind of real input. This could be easily explained due to the fact on the bench he had one ‘keeper, four centre-backs by trade, one half fullback-half winger and a midfielder. In the 77th minute the manager opted to replace N’Diaye with Vaughan which largely was a like-for-like change. Then in 81st minute, seconds before the Jenas introduction for QPR, he replaced Colback with Pardsley with him moving to right back and Gardner now in midfield. Neither change delivered anything different tactically, as both changes only reshuffled the pack, so to speak. Following this, it was to be expected that Sunderland would struggle to impose themselves in attack to have any chance of getting back into the match, especially following Redknapp’s clever subs. It was only in the added time that Sunderland managed to register their first shot towards Green since they came down in the score line.
A classic game of two overly British sides in terms of technical capability – or lack of – and tactical approach. The game simply lacked the technical brilliance or the tactical depthness in the way both team’s behaved on the pitch. The fact neither team possessed a proper passing midfielder certainly made all of this even worse. On the other side having the two target men being each team’s key man when it comes to transition and influencing the build-up was telling too.
Still, the game produced some tactical entertainment, mainly thanks to the starting approach from QPR. For a self-confessed tactical layman Redknapp is surprisingly (or not?!) on a decent run when it comes to his general tactical management. The way he tries to offer variety of shapes, selections and tactics depending on the opposition the past couple of months is impressive (think about the games against Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Southampton and now Sunderland). However, he could be rightly criticised for lack of proactiveness during the best part of the second half when his team struggled. But it could be said he offset that by the clever usage of his subs after that.
On the other side it could be said that O’Neill had his team approaching the game rather poorly, then improving during the second half only to then fail to impress once going one goal down.