League One 2018/19: Sunderland vs Portsmouth

EFL League One 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Sunderland vs Portsmouth
artwork by @chapluana

Saturday night witnessed a thrilling clash as both Portsmouth and Sunderland were on the hunt for an automatic promotion spot in EFL League One. Kenny Jackett’s side entered the match high on confidence thanks to their seven-match unbeaten run. They were separated from Barnsley in second-place, by just three points.

Sunderland came into this match knowing three points will help them move up to third-place. At the same time, it will widen their deficit with Charlton if Lee Bowyer’s side couldn’t get a win. Everything went as planned for Jack Ross and his side when Tom Flanagan opened the scoring in the ninth minute. But, as the first half reached its middle stage, Jamal Lowe equalised for the away side. During the remaining time, both teams tried to find that decisive goal but, still, the game ended in a 1-1 draw.

In this tactical analysis, we will relive the second clash between the teams in a one-month period.


Ross made one change to the side that secured a point at Peterborough. Tom Flanagan returned as the right centre-back to replace Burnley prospect, Jimmy Dunne. He played alongside Turkish defender Alim Öztürk. Club-captain Lee Cattermole paired up with former Wigan midfielder Max Power as central midfielders. Up front, Charlie Wyke would receive support from the trio of George Honeyman, Aiden McGeady, and Lewis Morgan. Will Grigg, another former Wigan player, came on as a super-sub for Sunderland.

EFL League One 2018/19: Sunderland vs Portsmouth Tactical Analysis Statistics
Sunderland and Portsmouth’s lineups [Wyscout.com]
Portsmouth made two changes to their lineup. James Vaughan and Ronan Curtis replaced Ollie Hawkins and Gareth Evans as a striker and left winger respectively. Jackett kept the same back-line that helped Portsmouth win the Checkatrade Trophy over Sunderland last month. Nathan Thompson played as a right-back, Lee Brown on the opposite side. Christian Burgess and Matthew Clarke partnered in central defence.

Portsmouth’s style of play

Right from the get-go, Portsmouth pushed forward in order to gain an early advantage. They were more threatening than Sunderland in the first half although they couldn’t hold much of the possession. As a result, they created an overwhelming six chances compared to Sunderland’s four. Half of those chances were highly-rated in xG, which included Jamal Lowe’s goal in the 24th minute. Before that, Vaughan came close with a header but hit the crossbar.

EFL League One 2018/19: Sunderland vs Portsmouth Tactical Analysis Statistics
Portsmouth’s xG rating [Wyscout.com]
Portsmouth tended to start their attacks from the back. But since the wing-backs were usually located inside Sunderland’s half, the centre-backs’ passing options were limited. So Tom Naylor and Ben Close dropped deep whenever Burgess and Clarke had the ball. They would provide an option and connect the centre-backs with the rest of the squad. Also, Naylor has the ability to dribble his way up the pitch, creating more opportunities for his teammates to move into spaces.

The away side also attempted to overload the opposition half on many occasions, thanks to their overlapping wing-backs. It confused Sunderland’s defenders when they tried to mark Portsmouth’s players. At the same time, this allowed the players to create passing triangles between them, keeping the ball moving continuously.

EFL League One 2018/19: Sunderland vs Portsmouth Tactical Analysis Statistics
Portsmouth’s block of four

One of the main reasons Portsmouth didn’t hold much possession but created more chances was because of their high-pressing game.

When not in possession, Portsmouth’s strikers pressed high up the pitch and prevented Sunderland from building from the back. Vaughan and Pitman, usually located next to each other, had the responsibility of marking the centre-backs. Lowe and Curtis would track the runs of the full-backs and stop them from joining the attack. Sunderland had no choice but to play long balls towards Wyke and Honeyman. Although this is a textbook scenario for many lower-tier English teams, it still proved its efficiency.

EFL League One 2018/19: Sunderland vs Portsmouth Tactical Analysis Statistics
Portsmouth’s pressing

If the press got bypassed, Portsmouth would create a medium block inside their own half. They utilised their defensive 4-4-1-1 formation to create two defensive lines in front of Craig MacGillivray’s goal. As the wingers joined the central midfielders, they left Pitman as a spare man. The former Ipswich striker usually lurked outside of the structure, waiting for the ball to be cleared. He then would pick the ball up and initiate a counter-attack.

EFL League One 2018/19: Sunderland vs Portsmouth Tactical Analysis Statistics
Portsmouth’s medium 4-4-1-1 block

Sunderland’s style of play

The first half witnessed Sunderland being overplayed, but they were fortunate to open the score through Flanagan’s goal. Besides that, they also created many high-rated chances, in which all four of them were above 0.1. One of them belonged to Wyke, who came close to giving Sunderland the lead. But on a day when MacGillivray was superb, Sunderland had no choice but to accept the draw.

EFL League One 2018/19: Sunderland vs Portsmouth Tactical Analysis Statistics
Sunderland’s xG rating [Wyscout.com]
The home side improved a lot in the second half, creating many chances and causing a lot of troubles for Portsmouth. Most of Sunderland’s chances in the second-half were low-rated. Four out of their seven chances in the second half were on target, but none of them were rated above 0.1. The same could be said about McGeady’s and Power’s chances. Although those were blocked, they did come closer to their second goal.

This was due to the fact that they were happy to circulate the ball when Portsmouth formed a medium block. It allowed them to be more precise in starting an attack and reaching the final third. The only exception was Grigg’s chance in the 85th minute, which was rated 0.26. He came close again but the ball hit the post and bounced out.

Another thing that stood out about Sunderland’s attacking style is they relied heavily on wing attacks. 62% of 35 positional-attacks from Sunderland were from both flanks, especially the left-hand side. Also, they registered 16 crosses and seven of them came from Bryan Oviedo and McGeady.

EFL League One 2018/19: Sunderland vs Portsmouth Tactical Analysis Statistics
Sunderland’s attacking direction [Wyscout.com]
When not in possession, Sunderland usually defended deep. They created a low block and tried to press the opposition’s ball-carrier on entering the final third. Their aim was to suffocate his passing options and block his run into the box.

Meanwhile, other players from Sunderland would close down Portsmouth’s players. They would intercept any passes or crosses that came from the ball-carrier. In this game, Sunderland defenders registered nineteen interceptions and fourteen clearances.

EFL League One 2018/19: Sunderland vs Portsmouth Tactical Analysis Statistics
Sunderland’s pressing

On many occasions, Sunderland’s defensive structure also included Wyke and Honeyman. They were instructed to close down Naylor and Close, preventing them from making through balls towards the wing-backs and wingers. Ross also noticed that Clarke inclined to drift wide in the latter stage of the game and he wanted Wyke to follow him. This would limit the number of long passes that the ball-playing defender could make.


A game that could have decided the automatic promotion run ended in a draw, meaning that chances are still open. Kenny Jackett proved his tactical intelligence when he changed the team’s status in the second half. He wanted to protect a crucial point rather than take a risk for three points. Portsmouth have already lifted the Checkatrade Trophy and it will build momentum for them in their promotion run.

After a summer with many changes, Sunderland are currently on the brink of returning to the Championship. Their playoff spot was secured thanks to their deficit with Doncaster Rovers. But Jack Ross and his side are still hungry for that automatic promotion spot. With Luton Town continuously slipping up in recent times, it has created a chance for the teams below them to step up and steal that top spot.

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