Despite being in possession of a great managerial record, Di Canio’s appointment at The Stadium of Light has been one of great controversy as his supposedly facist and racist beliefs have suddenly unearthed. The decision to bring in the ex-Swindon manager could prove to be a brilliant one as his fiery passion has summoned some strong performances from The Black Cats against solid opposition. One of the greatest changes seen in their play is as a result of his strong mentality – their relentless pressing.
His Swindon side was known for their intensive pressure off of the ball, a tactical trend which is slowly becoming more prevalent as teams such as Dortmund and Bayern have had such giant success by putting a large emphasis on counterpressing*. Looking at the statistics from the Italian’s debut game against Chelsea, we can already see that he’s placing a great importance on defending from the front – Conor Wickham made the joint highest ground duels (15) over the 22 players alongside his teammate Alfred N’diaye. Despite the young forward’s poor success rate, winning just 27% of said attempts, this still shows the side’s new intentions.
*Counterpressing – attempting to win the ball back in the final third immediately upon being dispossessed.
|(I put Sunderland at home to prevent a colour clash of blue)|
In Di Canio’s 4-2-3-1 system, the front 4 alone attempted 38 ground duels, if you compare that to a match of O’Neill’s era you can clearly see the effect of the ex-Swindon boss’ energy, as it seems that it has transferred to his players too.
As a result of said pressing, the deeper players such as Craig Gardner are profiting with a significantly larger amount of interceptions. This is because of the energetic pressing upfield, which puts the opposition’s defence under large amounts of pressure, these defenders are forced to make much more rushed passes which are less likely to reach their teammates, and therefore has a higher chance of being intercepted by a Sunderland player.
|SAFC interceptions in Di Canio’s two matches|
As you can see by the statistics, the total interceptions has taken a 277% increase through the change of manager. Because Sunderland are pressing higher, they’re winning the ball higher up the pitch, compared to in their own penalty area under O’Neill. This then means that players such as Stephane Sessegnon are thriving under Di Canio, as the pressing leads to many more (threatening) counter-attacking opportunities.
Take the Beninise footballer’s goal against Newcastle in that crucial win, Jonas starts on the ball for the Magpies, then is put under pressure by Adam Johnson and mis-places a pass which McClean intercepts, to start the counter-attack leading to the first goal of Di Canio’s reign.
However, despite their very high amount of interceptions as a result of their aggressive pressing, the Black Cats struggle greatly in terms of keeping possession afterwards. With an average possession this season of 43.72% you would’ve expected that to improve come their new philosophy off of the ball. One thing you would not have thought would be for that statistic to take a drop, but it has done rather greatly in their most recent match against Newcastle, where they managed to beat their fierce rivals 3-0 with just 34.3% of the ball.
We can see from this that Di Canio, with just two years of experience in management, is aiming to continue the intensity of his pressing into their play with the ball. With the attacking flair that Johnson, Sessegnon and McClean bring to the table, this seems a smart move as there is much more positivity in the Northern side’s ventures forward. Although they saw little of the ball, the top 3 creators of chances in their derby match were all in a red and white shirt.
Though we may not see a great progression of this new incessant pressing philosophy until the start of next season, it looks like this newfound energy could keep Sunderland up, especially after that crucial derby victory. Come the 2013/2014 season, I expect that we can see an even more impressive defensive display in the attacking third as they become more and more used to their new system, on top of an improvement in fitness as the Italian has already criticized the squad’s current shape.
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