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Chelsea 2 Sunderland 1 | Tactics & Stats Report

Poor Sunderland. They deserved more from  a reinvigorated performance that contrasted with the majority for their season.

2 scrappy goals sunk Sunderland’s 1 goal lead against Chelsea. This puts a larger ding in their hopes of avoiding the drop. It will sting, because Sunderland actually played pretty well, and the match could have easily gone either way. Paolo di Canio seems to have made an instant tactical impact and will take heart from what was a strong showing despite the scoreline.

Lineups and Tactics

Chelsea v Sunderland Tactics

(Note: the Home/Away sides have been swapped in this picture to avoid jersey color confusion)

Benitez fielded a familiar 4-2-3-1 for Chelsea. He continues to show faith in a back two of David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic, something that Chelsea fans have disputed in the past. Injured Ashley Cole was replaced by Ryan Bertrand at left back.

Sunderland’s major change was to give a start to Connor Wickham. Steven Fletcher was injured for this match, but January signing Danny Graham was benched in favor of the 20-year-old Wickham.

It’s hard to make too much tactical sense of what happened in this match: it was quite a mess at times. The first two goals were own goals, and the last was severely deflected. Ivanovic will surely want to claim intention in his finishing back-heel touch on Oscar’s shot, but it looked like he knew very little about it.

The frenetic pace is in no small part due to the pressing game that di Canio favors. His Swindon side was renowned for their fitness and ability to run opponents off of the pitch. This match indicates that he has similar tactical intentions with Sunderland. Sunderland’s attacking four constantly pressured the ball from the kick-off.

In the opening moments, Chelsea seemed surprised and uncomfortable with the level of pressure on them. There was a decent chance within 5 minutes for Sunderland to score, but The Black Cats failed to capitalize.

This is quite different from the approach that Martin O’Neill favored. O’Neill’s approach typically involved a low amount of pressure. Frustrating opposing sides with defensive rigidity was often more important than winning the ball high up the pitch.

One of the players to really come alive in this new high tempo system was Sessegnon. He received the ball in a wide variety of positions around the pitch, and did well to distribute. He completed the 2nd highest amount of passes for Sunderland (31), only one pass behind Phil Bardsley. His completion rate was an impressive 91%. Additionally, he attempted more dribbles (5) than any other player on the pitch.

Team Statistics

Even with Sunderland’s increased pressure, Chelsea still managed to walk away with over 60% of possession.

Despite this possession, note that Chelsea failed to produce a single clear-cut chance. Sunderland did not either, but given the gulf in recent form between the two teams, they won’t be greatly concerned by this factor.

Another evolutionary aspect of Sunderland’s game was their confidence in dribbling. They attempted 19 dribbles as a team, and 12 of these were successful. This rate, 63%, was significantly better than Chelsea’s 50% dribbling success rate.  12 is twice as much as their previous match against Manchester United, and 5 more than their match against Norwich. Clearly, di Canio’s quick, open style is conducive to an increase in aggressive dribbling, and it seems to be paying off already.

But the most telling aspect of this match is that shots tally. It’s easy to spout praise for Sunderland’s new, aggressive approach, but it still did not manage to conjure up what they have been lacking most: shots on goal.  Chelsea fired off 16 attempts at goal, only 3 of which were on target. This is a dismal ratio, but Sunderland were far worse in this regard. Of Sunderland’s 8 total shots, none were on target.

The increased pressure did result in a fantastic amount of interceptions for Sunderland. Closing down Chelsea quickly reduced the amount of time they had to pick a pass, leaving Sunderland more chances to nip the ball away.  On 5 occasions they won the ball in Chelsea’s defensive half.

The greatest contributor to this tally was Craig Gardner.  Gardner won 7 interceptions, nearly double that of anyone else on the pitch.

Wayward Adam Johnson 

Di Canio’s first match will be the major talking point for Sunderland fans, but they will undoubtedly also be chattering about the bipolar performance of Adam Johnson.

Simply put, it wasn’t a fantastic match for Johnson. That being said, it wasn’t quite awful either. It’s hard to decisively label Johnson either way, because so many aspects of his performance were lopsided.

He did provide the cross that made a panicked Azpilicueta roof the ball into Chelsea’s net, but the failed to finish any of the other chances he had. Once again, that being said, he also created 3 solid chances for his teammates.


Sunderland’s gamble may well pay off. Admittedly, they didn’t take any points away from Stamford Bridge, but they came far closer than anyone would have expected. Their high tempo and quick pressure limited Chelsea’s chances at goal, and won them the ball back on numerous occasions.

If they keep playing in this vein, Sunderland could just save themselves from the drop. But, they will still need to find goals from somewhere with Fletcher out.

No doubt they will hope to carry this momentum into their next match with a vulnerable Newcastle. It’s going to be a Tyne-Wearside match to relish as both teams look to ensure they don’t play in the Championship next season.


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All of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.com – Subscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Check out our new Top Stats feature on the Stats Centre which allows you to compare all players in the league & read about new additions to the stats centre.[/box_light]

Michael Thot
Michael Thot
Raised in Seattle WA. Sounders FC, United States, and Liverpool supporter.
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