Dark days behind them at the Stadium of Light

Sunderland’s decision to sack manager Steve Bruce and appoint Martin O’Neill has dramatically changed their season. When O’Neill took charge of his first game against Blackburn on 11th December Sunderland found themselves in 17th position in the league with 11 points from 14 games. Following Saturday’s victory over Swansea the club sits in 10th place with 27 points, having accumulated 16 points from just 8 games under their new manager.

Under Bruce, Sunderland averaged just 0.79 points per game, scoring 1.14 and conceding 1.21 goals per game in the process. Under O’Neill the team has seen a huge improvement to an average of 2 points per game, scoring more (1.63) and conceding fewer (0.88). This record is all the more impressive given that O’Neill’s brief tenure has included away fixtures at Tottenham and Chelsea and a home game against league leaders Man City. Had Sunderland demonstrated this form from the beginning of the season they would be currently sitting in 4th place.

So how has O’Neill brought about this change in fortune?

Team Selection

Martin O’Neill has had the same squad at his disposal, and has largely used the same players and the same formation. The table below shows the players that have started in the league for Sunderland under both O’Neill and Steve Bruce. Ten players have started at least half of the games under both managers, with four starting at least 75%. However, two players in particular have been used much more frequently under O’Neill. David Vaughan mostly warmed the bench for Bruce but has since started every game, while James McClean has gone from playing in the reserves to becoming an active member of the first team.

One point that does come across is the consistency of selection under O’Neill. Nine players have started at least 75% of the games, compared to only five players under Bruce. In fact three players have started every game for O’Neill and, but for injuries to Simon Mignolet, Wes Brown, Kieran Richardson, Sebastian Larsson and Nicklas Bendtner, that figure could easily be eight. This also suggests that, rather than O’Neill being luckier with player availability, he has simply identified his favoured players much more quickly than Bruce.


While the personnel may not have changed dramatically, Martin O’Neill has certainly altered the way Sunderland play. Steve Bruce favoured a more patient approach, leading to shorter passing and plenty of square-balls across the midfield and defensive line. Under O’Neill Sunderland have looked to play much more directly, with lots of long-balls down the flanks and into the forwards.

The Guardian Chalkboards below demonstrate Sunderland’s contrasting passing patterns under the two managers. The games away to Norwich and home to Fulham, both under Bruce’s management, show a great deal of short passing across the centre of the pitch.

(Under Steve Bruce – high volume of short passing in the midfield area)

Following O’Neill’s appointment, Sunderland’s passing is very different in games away to QPR and at home to Everton. The clusters of passing in the midfield has been replaced with longer passes from defence.

(Under Martin O’Neill – majority of passes bypass the midfield)

This change in passing is further reflected by Sunderland’s passing success under the two managers. In the fourteen games prior to O’Neill’s appointment the team had a passing success of 76%. In the eight games since their success rate has dropped to 70%.


Sunderland’s direct approach has resulted in a drop in their share of possession. In the eight games under Martin O’Neill, Sunderland have only had the majority of the ball once, against Blackburn in his first game in charge, and average 42.3% possession overall. Whether there is a conscious intention to cede possession to their opponents and adopt a counter-attacking style is unclear, but certainly a pattern is evident. Under Steve Bruce Sunderland averaged 46.6% possession, which may not seem to be a considerable difference. However they had at least 50% possession in seven of fourteen games, winning only once and losing three times.

This may have influenced O’Neill’s plans, as clearly attempting to dominate possession was not working. Wigan are one of the few teams that both Bruce and O’Neill have faced this season, and the statistics are interesting. Under Steve Bruce Sunderland had 53% possession and lost 2-1. Under Martin O’Neill Sunderland had only 37% possession and won 4-1.

Defensive Line

Sunderland’s ceding of possession has led to another feature under Martin O’Neill, that of defensive depth. While Steve Bruce hardly played an aggressive press, he did attempt to play a much higher line and looked to win the ball further up the field. Since O’Neill has taken over, Sunderland’s defence has dropped much deeper and they have largely looked to drop back into their own half before attempting to win the ball back.

The Guardian Chalkboards below show the tackles attempted in two games under Bruce and two under O’Neill. In the games under Bruce, at home to Fulham and Wigan, Sunderland attempt as many tackles in the opposition’s half as their own.

(Under Steve Bruce – tackles are attempted all over the pitch)

With Martin O’Neill the majority of tackle attempts occur in Sunderland’s half of the pitch.

(Under Martin O’Neill – tackles are largely consigned to their own half)

Using the Wigan game again as a direct comparison it becomes clear how much deeper Sunderland played. Looking at the players’ average position using ESPN’s Soccernet GameCast you can see how Sunderland’s central defenders attempted to push up towards the halfway line under Bruce, whereas for O’Neill they remained on the edge of their own penalty area.

(Under Steve Bruce – only 4 players’ average position is in Sunderland’s half)


(Under Martin O’Neill – in a complete transformation, only 4 players’ average position is in the opponent’s half)


It seems that Martin O’Neill has prioritised making Sunderland difficult to beat, by dropping deeper and playing more directly, but in doing so has actually got them scoring more goals and winning more games.

The balance of the team appears to be better. James McClean has provided natural width on the left to compliment Sebastian Larsson on the other flank. Behind them Phil Bardsley has been moved to his preferred position of right-back with Kieran Richardson taking the left-back spot, resulting in two left-footed players on the left and two right-footed players on the right.

This has also allowed Stephane Sessegnon, arguably Sunderland’s best player this season, the freedom to play centrally and link the midfield to Nicklas Bendtner up front. He seems to have revelled in the role, with three goals and three assists in the eight games under O’Neill compared to two goals and three assists in fourteen games under Steve Bruce.

At the back the likes of Wes Brown and John O’Shea have benefitted from a deeper line and consistent selection, while ahead of them both Lee Cattermole and David Vaughan combine energy and ability on the ball. It is unsurprising that Vaughan has featured so heavily for O’Neill in this system given that direct passing to the flanks was a large part of Blackpool’s style last season.

Time will tell if O’Neill’s initial changes turn into long-term plans. Either way, it has been an excellent start, and the club now have an outside chance of qualifying for Europe. It will be interesting to see how the Sunderland board back O’Neill in the transfer market, seeing as a lack of funds reportedly caused him to walk out on Villa.

Wingers take central role in Tottenham’s title challenge

Tottenham’s victory over Everton left them level on points with Man Utd and three points off league leaders Man City, confirming their position as genuine title rivals to the Manchester clubs. Much has been made of the additions of Scott Parker and Emmanuel Adebayor as a reason for the club’s success, but the biggest change since last season has been the use of their wingers, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon.

Since the arrival of Rafael Van der Vaart, manager Harry Redknapp has favoured a 4-4-1-1 formation, playing the Dutchman behind a lone striker and a flat midfield four. Bale and Lennon stayed wide as traditional wingers, running at the opposing full backs and looking to deliver crosses from the byline rather than attack the penalty box. As a result, Tottenham relied heavily on Van der Vaart to support the lone striker.

Fortunately for Spurs, Van der Vaart had an excellent season, scoring 13 goals and made 9 assists, compared to just 10 goals and 3 assists between Bale and Lennon. However, his importance can be demonstrated by the statistic that Spurs averaged 1.75 points-per-game in 2010/11 with Van der Vaart in the side compared to just 1.30 without him. Redknapp seems to have identified this reliance as a weakness and has given his wide players the freedom to roam across the pitch and provide greater support to his lone frontman in central areas.

The graphics below (from ESPN Soccernet’s Gamecast) show the average position of Tottenham’s players in games against the same opponent from this season and last, and show clearly how both Bale (#3) and Lennon (#7) have adapted their game for the team.


Tottenham away to WBA in 2010/11. Notice how wide Bale and Lennon play.


Tottenham away to WBA in 2011/12. Bale and Lennon’s average position is now central, suggesting the players swapped wings often, and much more advanced.


Tottenham away to Fulham in 2010/11. Again Bale and Lennon play wider, a long distance from the lone striker Roman Pavlyuchenko (#9).


Tottenham away to Fulham in 2011/12. Bale and Lennon play much closer to the strikers Emmanuel Adebayor (#10) and Jermain Defoe (#18, who came on as a sub).

As a result of this tactical change both Bale and Lennon have become much more involved in Tottenham’s attacking play and has resulted in the two wingers becoming more productive.

The table below shows the games played by the three players mentioned (starts and sub appearances), and their goals and assists for the 2010/11 and the 2011/12 seasons. The Gl/Gm and Ass/Gm columns represent goals per game and assists per game respectively. The Team Gls column shows the number of goals scored by Spurs with the player on the pitch. Finally, the % Team column shows the percentage of Tottenham’s goals each player was involved in (either scored or assisted).

The team’s reliance on Van der Vaart in 10/11 is reflected by him being involved in 53.7% of Tottenham’s goals, while Bale (17.8%) and Lennon’s (11.1%) contribution is much smaller. This season however, Bale and Lennon have scored and created more, demonstrated by their increase in goals and assists per game, and this has resulted in them being involved in more of Tottenham’s goals. Bale now leads the way with an involvement in 35.1% of the team’s goals, while Lennon has improved to 23.8%. Clearly Tottenham are no longer as reliant upon Van der Vaart for goals.

Another result of Bale and Lennon’s new freedom has been their development as players. With both of them playing as traditional wingers last season there were doubts about how they could adapt to other formations, in particular as part of a front-three. Clubs that had shown an interest in Bale, like Barcelona and Inter, saw him as an option at full back rather than further forward, while Lennon has never been considered as part of a front-three for England. This season they have demonstrated movement, positioning and creativity that wasn’t previously obvious and have been a major factor behind Tottenham’s progression to title challengers.

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Has Roberto Martinez’s new Wigan formation been influenced by Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli?

After starting the season with their customary 4-3-3 formation, Wigan have now lined up in a 3-4-3 system ever since their 3-3 draw with Blackburn on November 19th. Roberto Martinez trialled the system in a 2-0 defeat to Aston Villa on October 1st, but then reverted back to his familiar 4-3-3 for their following game against Bolton. For the most part Martinez has used the same players, moving Maynor Figueroa from left-back to the left of a back-three, and pushing David Jones from central midfield to left wing-back.

In doing so, Wigan now mirror the shape of Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli, probably the most prominent club side currently playing with a back-three (excluding Barcelona’s experimentation). Below are rough diagrams of each team’s formation, with arrows depicting a player’s general movement during games.

                                 Wigan                                                               Napoli

The movement of the Wigan players closely reflects how Mazzarri sets up his Napoli team. Napoli’s width comes mainly from their wing-backs, especially Christian Maggio on the right. To provide cover, Hugo Campagnaro, the right-sided centre-back, often plays slightly wider than Salvatore Aronica, the left-sided centre-back, especially when Napoli line up against a lone striker. For Wigan, Jones, a natural midfielder, tends to play further forward than Ronnie Stam, a natural full-back. Behind Jones, Figueroa is accustomed to playing left-back and so tends to play wider than Alcaraz.

The front-three also have similarities. For Napoli, Marek Hamsik drops deep to help out in midfield, before breaking forward to link up with his strike partners. Ezequiel Lavezzi uses his pace to attack from the left channel, while Edison Cavani acts as a mobile target-man, bringing teammates into play and being the focal point of the attacks. For Wigan, Jordi Gomez drops deep without the ball to bolster the midfield, Victor Moses likes to attack at pace down the flanks and Connor Sammon (or Hugo Rodallega) looks to hold the ball up and get in the box for crosses.

Ultimately these intricacies give the respective formations a fluency that a standard 3-4-3 system would lack. The lateral movement of the defenders allows the team to take the shape of a back-four if necessary, while the withdrawal of one of the forwards prevents the midfield from being outnumbered against a side playing three in the middle. Equally the forwards perform distinctive roles, one as a playmaker, one resembles a winger and the central striker leads the line. For both managers to stumble across these details independently seems unlikely, and thus there is the suggestion that Martinez has taken some inspiration from Mazzarri’s system.

Wigan’s success with the 3-4-3 may depend on how their opponents deal with an unfamiliar system. Napoli’s success in Serie A is aided by the prevalence of narrow midfields and front-twos, whereas the Premier League has always been dominated by wingers and is now littered with single-striker formations, both of which provide problems for back-threes. Even so, early signs are positive – Wigan have got 10 points in the 9 games they have lined up 3-4-3 (including games against Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal) compared to 5 points in 10 games playing 4-3-3.

Obviously, Wigan’s players lack the talent of their Napoli counterparts, but the similarities are interesting. Whether this extends to the style of play is less likely. Napoli are primarily a counter-attacking side, looking to defend deep and move the ball forward quickly when in possession. Roberto Martinez likes Wigan to keep possession with shorter, more patient passing. It would take a major shift in philosophy for Martinez to copy Mazzarri any further.