Southampton 0 Sunderland 1 : Story Of A Match


In a battle of relegation candidates it was the visiting Sunderland who made the most of their chances. Today on the blog, Matt Wallace from Holtamania delivers his tactical analysis of this key relegation matchup.


Southampton vs Sunderland was a chance to take a look at two of this year’s relegation candidates. While both teams have struggled so far this season, they do so with very different styles.

For Southampton they’ve been fearless going forward and leaky at the back. For Sunderland, they’ve been cautious, even tepid in front of goal. Their meeting was a chance to see which style, if either, was more likely to last the year.

First Impressions


For Southampton the early talking points were the inclusion of Mayuka for his first start of the season, ahead of the expensive Jay Rodriguez, and the shift of Gaston Ramirez out to the left. Sunderland were boosted by the return of Danny Rose, enabling them to drop Titus Bramble – a win in anyone’s book.

A Tale Of Efficiency

The main takeaway from this game was about efficiency, in two ways. Firstly, efficiency in front of goal. From the chalkboards below you can see how Southampton had more shots and more passes, yet struggled to do anything with them. Over the course of the match they were more threatening, but they struggled to test the keeper and looked unusually poor in the final third.


By contrast Sunderland had less passes, less shots and most of the ones they did have were outside the box. You can see the incredibly low number of passes that made their way into the Southampton box. But when the time came, they took their chance.

Why? Again, efficiency. This time, efficiency of space. Sunderland were more capable of taking advantage of the space left open by Southampton and it was only a matter of time until it paid off.

Ramirez & Gardner

The clearest way to demonstrate this is down Southampton’s left hand side, where both teams tried their hardest to mess things up. Firstly, you’ve got a central player, Ramirez, holding onto that flank – badly. Ramirez is the sort of playmaker who goes looking for the ball, and you can see by his received passes that he often departed infield, leaving big open spaces behind him.


This was seized upon by Gardner who got forward to good effect, putting in a number of crosses from deep. While not all of these met a Sunderland head, they put the Southampton defence (and their notoriously bad goalkeeping) under pressure.

Sessegnon, Johnson & Shaw

This space would have been ideal to attack a young, inexperienced fullback, but unfortunately Sunderland didn’t wise up to things that quickly. Sessegnon continued to attack the flanks by playing a number of through balls and passes into wide areas, and the tactic was clear. Get the ball to the feet of Johnson or McClean and get balls into the box where Fletcher could get on the end of them.


Unfortunately, Johnson was as predictable as ever down the right hand flank. With a player as one-footed as he is, Shaw was never in danger of being pushed down the line and instead he knew, every time, that Johnson was going to cut inside.


He was thus able to play pretty high up the pitch himself, and offer a good outlet for Southampton when Gaston Ramirez was nowhere to be found.


So with Johnson being predictable and mostly ineffective for the first half down the right hand side, the onus was on McClean on the other flank to offer something – but he didn’t either.


Again, Sunderland were being offered plenty of space, and McClean has genuine pace and a left foot to threaten with. This kept the Southampton fullback quite far back and honest, but he wasn’t made to pay for this. McClean’s form continued to be poor and his crossing was wayward.

Like Gardner, though, it was at least a threat. The fullback had to stay back, the keeper still had to come and claim or the defenders had to clear – balls into the box are always useful, especially in a system like Martin O’Neill’s.

Incidentally, look at the crossing map of McClean compared to the one of Sunderland as a whole, as shown above in the Ramirez/Gardner section. You’ll notice how, on the left flank, they are all by the byline, but on the right they are from deep. That is a result of the one dimensional play that Johnson brings.

It wasn’t until the second half that Sunderland were able to make this count, but it was coming. It came from Johnson doing something unexpected – appearing on the other side of the pitch – and putting in a ball with his left foot that was more whipped than floated. It eventually found its way into the middle, and Southampton were punished. It wasn’t much of a surprise, because it was always going to be down the flanks that opportunities were created.

Puncheon & Rose

By contrast, Southampton were also trying to take advantage of space but they came up against a more disciplined, well drilled unit. Danny Rose, on his return and in great form, was dependable and solid at left back and forced the dangerous Puncheon to come inside on numerous occasions.


Puncheon was only successful on 2 of 6 take-on’s in the opposition half and mainly had to drift infield if he wanted any joy. Here he met the pretty effective Colback, protecting the Sunderland defence, or Larsson (who did it less).

On the left hand side Shaw tried to help and Ramirez remained a threat, but a sporadic one and spent too long searching for the ball, leaving open those holes for Sunderland to attack on the counter. Once Sunderland were in the lead, it was easy for them to maintain it with Southampton’s final third play as poor as it was.

Things improved for Southampton when the hit and miss Mayuka came off and De Ridder came on, but even then the impact was minimal. Lambert threatened in fits and spurts, but more often than not their final ball or shot was lacking. They were inefficient. Sunderland were not.

The Final Word

All in all it was a deserved win for Sunderland who had less of the ball, but just offered more with it. It was a performance that looked promising rather than good – Johnson only looked threatening when doing something unexpected, and all too often he was predictable, even for a 17 year old.

Sunderland will really find form if they can make their attackers fire, especially Sessegnon, and if McClean can find some semblance of form. Otherwise they might be struggling to get these sorts of results anywhere where there’s a competent defence. Other teams won’t be so generous with space and chances.



To read more of Matt's work, visit his blog

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Blogger, philosopher, lifelong mate, never wants a passer-by to pass him by. Blogging at on all things Norwich and here with monthly Story of a Match pieces, breaking down the interesting games to see exactly what made them tick. I also bet, but with unreliable outcomes.