EFL League One 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Sunderland vs Portsmouth

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

Sunderland and Portsmouth are preparing to face each other for the fourth time this campaign in the first leg of the Sky Bet League One Play-Offs at the Stadium of Light. As well as the two standard league fixtures, they also met in the Checkatrade Trophy final six weeks ago – and it is Pompey who have enjoyed the better of these match-ups, winning two and drawing one. Now, this tactical preview will look into both sides’ strategy and what we should anticipate. 

In their first clash, at Fratton Park, Portsmouth were 3-1 victors, and they also triumphed at Wembley – albeit on penalties, following a 2-2 draw. The two teams last did battle only 14 days ago, playing out an exciting 1-1 draw up on Wearside.

Both outfits had realistic expectations of achieving automatic promotion at the start of the campaign, with big budgets and expectant fanbases to boot, and were fighting for such until the penultimate game of the season. Following the hammer blow of failing to finish in the top two, it will now be a test to see which team can get themselves firing for this dramatic postseason showdown.

Likely line-ups

EFL League One 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Sunderland vs PortsmouthEFL League One 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Sunderland vs Portsmouth

Portsmouth have stuck to their tried-and-tested 4-2-3-1 all season, and there is no reason to change here. This system allows them to combine defensive solidarity with a licence for their forward players Brett Pitman, Jamal Lowe, Ronan Curtis et al to express themselves and their talents, whilst also incorporating the box-to-box nature of their central midfield players Tom Naylor, Ben Close and Bryn Morris.

As for Sunderland, despite trying a couple of alternative variations (4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1), most of their success this year has seen them line up in the same formation. When deploying two genuine strikers they lost their threat from deeper which stifled their creativity, and so it is likely they will return to the system that has provided them with the most joy.

Key winger Aiden McGeady has been struggling with a foot injury but looks set to feature, with on-loan Celtic attacker Lewis Morgan ready to deputise – himself having recovered from a concussion suffered in training last week – if the Scot does not make it.

Pompey cede possession – but are still a threat

In all of the three outings thus far, Portsmouth have recorded possession stats lower than their season-long average of 50.17%, with percentages of 48.83, 48.66 and 43.15 respectively. However, despite giving Sunderland the majority of the ball, Kenny Jackett’s men remained defensively resolute, containing the Black Cats in attack. Sunderland produced xGs of 0.92, 0.66 and 1.24 in these matches – all below their average 1.75 xG per game – and also fewer shots on goal than usual. The northeast outfit average 12.98 shots on goal per game, yet could only register nine, 11 and 11 respectively. This, therefore, indicates that in spite of their inferior ball time, Portsmouth were compact enough to significantly lower the chance of their opponents scoring.

Another considerable statistic is the number of times that Sunderland were robbed of the ball in comparison to normal. Typically they would lose the ball 119.54 times per match, whereas in the first two encounters against Pompey they were dispossessed 139 and 154 times respectively. This – combined with Sunderland’s greater amount of possession – could mean that Portsmouth initially allowed them to have the ball, but then upon a trigger pass would hunt and harry to disrupt their flow and stifle any creativity.

However, in their latest showdown, Jack Ross’ side saw this stat drop to 107 – which could suggest that they have now realised they must move the ball quicker in order to prevent the Pompey press.

Furthermore, although they were content to see less of the ball, Portsmouth still managed to carve out more high-quality chances than their standard amount in two of the three contests against Ross’ men. Throughout the season their mean xG was 1.76, however in their 3-1 success and 1-1 draw they produced xGs of 1.94 and 1.85, suggesting that they were still able to seriously hurt Sunderland.

Hosts can hurt on the counter

In their last bout, Sunderland hurt Portsmouth with rapid counter-attacks after winning the ball back. The players were clearly aware of this, as we can see below that as soon as Jon McLaughlin in goal claims the corner, the two players on the edge of the box – Morgan and George Honeyman – immediately look to break out and receive the ball in order to capitalise on the turnover of possession.

EFL League One 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Sunderland vs Portsmouth

McLaughlin immediately kicks long downfield for the chasing McGeady, who in turn sets up Morgan after a lung-busting run past the retreating Pompey defenders despite their twenty-yard headstart – as they are not even in the below image due to their deep positioning from the corner. The fact that he wins this race is a clear indication of his will to win, and it is this kind of desire that Sunderland must display over both legs if they wish to progress to the final.

EFL League One 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Sunderland vs Portsmouth

Additionally, Portsmouth also commit several men when attacking from open play as well as set pieces, as we can see below from the seven players in the shot. As Sunderland know that they have the pace to hurt Portsmouth in transition, through the likes of Morgan, Chris Maguire, Lynden Gooch and company, then they should look to utilise this speed instantly when they retain the ball deep.

EFL League One 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Sunderland vs Portsmouth


It promises to be a fascinating battle between two teams who are very familiar with each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Sunderland appear to have learnt their lessons from past outings and must take full advantage of this acquired knowledge if they wish to progress. As for Portsmouth, if they can leave the north-west with a draw at worst then they must be confident of sealing the two-legged tie at home in the second leg.

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