A dismal day in Staffordshire didn’t dampen the spirits at the Brittania, as Stoke City overwhelmed the Black Cats from Sunderland with two set-piece goals in the final 10 minutes.
STOKE CITY FORM: In the first home game for newly-acquired John Carew, Tony Pulis paired him with Kenwyne Jones at the front of a 4-4-2 shape. While there were a number of changes from the midweek match against Liverpool, this more closely resembled Pulis’ top 11.
SUNDERLAND FORM: There were two relatively new faces in the Sunderland lineup. Recently acquired from PSG, Stephane Sessegnon started as a second striker, while Internazionale loanee Sulley Muntari also got a start in the midfield. Steve Bruce decided to go with a three-back formation, which Liverpool used earlier in the week to defeat the Potters. This was a modified 3-5-2, but was more accurately a 3-3-2-2. Muntari sat by himself in front of the tight defensive triad, with Jordan Henderson and Kieran Richardson helping to link to Asamoah Gyan and Sessegnon.
FORMATION THOUGHTS: The 3-back formation used by Liverpool was covered at Zonal Marking midweek, mostly because it’s not used much in the Premier League. In my opinion, it is no coincidence it was used a second time against Stoke City, and here are some reasons why:
1) WATCHING CAREW – With two powerful center forwards like Carew and Jones, there is a difficulty in keeping them in check. In this match, Sunderland used their captain, Titus Bramble, as the central back.. His size dictated he would be most effective to fight Carew and Jones for aerials, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was man-marking Carew. This allowed the other two center halves pretty much play their normal positional game.
2) NO WIDE MIDS – One thing you will notice when you watch Stoke is that they love direct play. Below you’ll see a chalkboard describing the passing game of their wingbacks, Danny Higginbotham and Andy Wilkinson, and you can see the sheer number of long aerial balls and crosses in this game …and that’s not even showing the center halves’ passing. In other words, you can be a little less concerned about midfield defending in order to defeat the center forwards. Where Steve Bruce decided to sacrifice was in the wide midfield area. The burden to cover this area fell to the wingbacks and the striking combo, Gyan and Sessegnon, who had to be more active along the touch lines.
3) CENTER PITCH SUPERIORITY – While the burden fell mostly on the wingbacks to provide width, Bruce knew that they were well-set for a solid game through the middle. The midfield for Sunderland resembled a narrow 4-4-2 diamond midfield, if you include Sessegnon in the discussion. The combination of Muntari, Henderson, and Richardson provided excellent triangle passing opportunities to weave through Delap, Whitehead, and sometimes Pennant who pulled inside at times on defense. And when they did get in a bind, their precision passing ahead to Sessegnon immediately put pressure on the Stoke defense.
In terms of formation, it was well-suited to thwart the Potters, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other teams use this strategy in the future.
FIRST HALF: Now to the game. Sunderland broke through immediately. In the 2nd minute, Bardsley passed to Gyan just inside the area. He whiffed on a volley attempt, but Richardson was there to clean up after him. His shot from the 6 yard box beat Begovic for the one goal lead.
Sunderland’s midfield passing game was very strong. Here are the numbers in the first half for their midfielders: Sessegnon – 17/20; Richardson 17/23; Henderson 20/32; Muntari 24-33. That makes 78/108, or 72% in the first half. The rest of the team went 56/109, or 51% passing. And those numbers were even better in the second half for the midfield quartet.
One of Stoke’s most dangerous weapons is their long-thrower Delap. He had several strong throws as set-pieces throughout the game, including one in the 32nd minute that resulted in Stoke’s first goal. His throw was headed straight up by Bramble, but the ball came down to Huth who headed the ball forward before Gordon could punch it away. Carew was there to finish the chance and level the score.
SECOND HALF START: There were no changes in formation at halftime, and it turned out the second half started much like the first. Muntari completed a long pass to Gyan, who fought off Huth, gathered the ball, and beat Begovic for the 1-2 lead 3 minutes into the 2nd half. It was rather embarassing for the defender, who overran the ball and was brushed aside handily by the Ghanian striker.
THE TIDE TURNS: When holding a lead, teams are at an extreme disadvantage against Stoke. This is not only because of their size at the forward position, but also the proficiency of their center halves on set piece opportunties, especially Robert Huth. Tactically speaking, the endgame was shaped by a desperate move by Tony Pulis. He pulled off the right fullback, Wilkinson, and brought on striker Jonathan Walters. This not only brought Stoke into a three back formation as well, but a much more attack-focused tactic (3-3-1-3 when defending, 3-1-3-3 on attack).
In the 83rd minute, the chaos that ensued from a free kick leveled the game for Stoke. Replays showed that Pennant’s freekick was deflected by Carew’s arm, but the referee did not whistle it down. Huth nudged the ball on its way into the net, giving him credit for the goal. Then in stoppage time, another Pennant free kick glided just over the wall of attackers and defenders fighting for position inside the area. Huth darted his way behind the fracas. His sliding effort made contact with the ball and helped it through Gordon for the clinching score, 3-2.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I believe Bruce was wise to use a tactic that worked well for Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool earlier this week. Unfortunately, tactics can be overcome by many variables. The main variable that confounded the Black Cats this day was an officiating crew that allowed Stoke City to be very physical in the Sunderland area, especially on set pieces. Gordon was uncomfortable in those situations, especially in the second half. This was caused by a number of Potters making contact with him in the area. A stricter referee may have nipped that in the bud. Another variable was that Sunderland simply ran out of gas. Stoke controlled the play in the last 20 minutes, partly because Sunderland was hanging on, but partly because the physical play wore them down.
This was yet another great match this day. I have yet to watch the Newcastle/Arsenal game, but I did see the headline. It was a great day for both ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel, with each getting at least one spectacular finish. And we still have one more tilt to keep us busy before the Super Bowl tomorrow night!