Revolutions require time and aren’t painless. Paolo Di Canio started his revolution at Sunderland this summer and his overhaul has the goal to give club new culture and attitude. Fining players that didn’t attend shirt-signing sessions or arrive late for team meetings isn’t new to more structured clubs. Maybe it is in a club like Sunderland, where former managers Martin O’Neill and Steve Bruce embraced a more soft approach with first-team players. Changes have been made both in and outside of the field. Under new director of football Roberto De Fanti and new technical director Valentino Angeloni, Sunderland have already brought in midfielder Cabral and defenders Valentin Roberge, and Modibo Diakité.
The France-born Diakité and former Marítimo Roberge came to strengthen a defence that lost Titus Bramble and Matt Kilgallon and Phil Bardsley’s future is also uncertain. Di Canio wants to install a new tactical attitude without the ball, with the team not sitting deep as they did under Bruce but with the new boss asking his players to go forward and close the ball down in a high-tempo, pressing approach. Under Di Canio, Sunderland has to be less worried about time of possession, as he’s asking his squad to play on the counter-attack. Di Canio’s attention to detail played a huge part in their successful run last season as the Italian was spending hours scouting opponents and teaching his players how to capitalise on their opponent’s weakness. And tactical training took on a huge part into Di Canio’s training each week. Di Canio’s approach does come down to the details as he explains every aspect of play to his players. He wants to spend as much time as possible and every possible moment teaching tactics on the training field.
The Back Cats looked fit and sharp after the physical boot camp that Di Canio installed this summer, and they are built to play from the back, with short passes in a tactical platform by the new manager created in the way to play a more fun game. On paper, Sunderland’s manager wants his side to deploy a 4-2-4 formation.
Di Canio told the Echo:
[quote]When we have the ball, I want us to be 4-2-4 with the wingers, pushing forward to join the attack and the full-backs moving up. We want to attack, we want to entertain and we want to score goals and the players we have brought in will make us much more able to do that..[/quote]
And Sunderland did it in the first game against Fulham, with both Adam Johnson and Emanuele Giaccherini operating as true attacking wingers but the team was unable to get behind the opposition’s back line.
They started well, employing a pressing game with both central midfielders Cabral and Seb Larsson chasing their counterpart Steven Sidwell and Derek Boateng while the defensive line was playing high up the pitch. Also, both Cabral and Larsson were good moving alternatively up and down to support the back line in the build from the back and the forwards.
Things went different against Southampton, with Sunderland sitting too deep waiting for fast-break. It’s hard drawing conclusions from two games. By the way, comparing the two line ups Di Canio utilised in the first couple of games and the way they played, we can draw some general thoughts about Di Canio’s tactical ideas.
SUNDERLAND WITH THE BALL
The attacking phase is played at a high tempo by Sunderland, with largely a vertical passing strategy in place.
The two wingers look to become wide forward playing high up the pitch at level with the forwards. They don’t support the play throughout the build up focusing on the play in the final third. Both wingers Emanuele Giaccherini and Adam Johnson played the most part of their passes in the attacking half.
The action usually starts with a long ball made from the back: against Fulham, Keiren Westwood played 9 long balls and central defender John O’Shea added 11; against Southampton, the goalkeeper played 12 long balls with a high 92% of passes in attacking half whilst right back Ondrej Celustka added 7 long balls.
In the final third, Di Canio is ready to set up his team for the crossing game to open the box as the played as many as 28 crosses against Fulham.
SUNDERLAND WITHOUT THE BALL
Without the ball Black Cats employed a medium or low defensive block system with high intensity pressing. Di Canio wants his team recovering behind the ball, playing with two banks of four.
Against the Saints they remained extremely compact and very deep inside their own half for the most part of the game.
The key is cohesion with both flankers moving back supporting the midfield. The forward duo is split as Stéphane Sessegnon became an attacking midfielder playing behind centre forward Jozy Altidore, helping the central midfielders against the opponent’s build up.
That prevents opponents from beating Sunderland in the middle of the pitch because of the spare man in midfield. But it’s also interesting to observe the way Di Canio wants to employ his central midfielders in his formation. Lacking of a true playmaker, Di Canio didn’t played two defensive-minded ball hunters but utilised two energetic players in the middle, lining up Cabral with Sebastian Larsson against Fulham and pairing Larsson with Craig Gardner against the Saints. Both central midfielders were allowed to go forward alternating their positions and supporting the attack. That worked much more with Cabral in the line up with the Portuguese that recording 5 shots in the first game.
That happened also because Sunderland midfield played more high up in the first game while in the second they was forced to sit too deep.
Di Canio’s principles are built around playing many vertical balls, building up from the back or through long balls, in the way to get the ball up front as soon as possible. They tried to apply those principles when it was possible against Fulham. On the other hand, against Southampton, Black Cats were forced to sit deep, changing a their way to attack, relying more on long balls, whilst the defending concepts remained settled.
Di Canio’s 4-2-4 formation has maybe been inspired tactically by Luigi Del Neri and Antonio Conte. The first one made his name with this system at Chievo while the latter started his coaching career running this way and winning Serie B championships with Bari and Siena. He also tried to play this way with Juventus before switching to a 3-5-2 formation.
As Conte pointed out his 4-2-4 was more an attacking 4-4-2:
[quote]There’s been too much talk on this particular way of playing. In actuality it’s a 4-4-2. I know of course novelty makes sometimes a great topic of discussion. If instead of saying ‘4-2-4′ I had said ‘4-4-2′ from the very beginning, we wouldn’t be discussing this ‘innovation’. Maybe all it is is just a normal idea of play. It is a normal 4-4-2. I think in England most teams that are winning are applying this type of module, which enables you to cover the playing field in the best possible way I think.[/quote]
For both coaches, the wingers have to play high up the pitch attacking while they drop back level with the central midfielders when the ball control is lost. Both managers utilised a positive approach, lining up a two-man central midfield where players weren’t too defensive-minded focusing just on keeping the ball and winning the ball and instead were supporting the offensive phase up front. With this system it is difficult for the full-backs to overlap the wingers but neither Del Neri or Conte were asking for that as they want their full-backs be a part of the defensive block. The team is split in a kind of 6-4 formation, with 6 defenders and 4 forwards. The goal of the 6 in a 4-2-4 is to build up and connect to the attack quickly. That’s far from the 4-2-2-2 employed by other managers as the flankers play wide open and not as central players playing behind the men up front.
By the way, until now Sunderland lacks the creativity that Conte and Del Neri built for their teams in the final third. They are relying too much in the crossing game making Sunderland one-dimensional with the ball. They lack the offensive combinations between the forwards utilised by Del Neri and Conte to build scoring chances in the final third.
This issue has to be solved on the field too and not just by adding the midfield playmaker that is at the top of Di Canio shopping list for the remainder of the transfer window as Di Canio has to hope his fitness regime will work because his 4-2-4 is a highly energetic formation.