Running in to a roadblock, we were unable to open up centre of the pitch as it finished Sunderland 0-0 Spurs in our Premier League clash.
In a real game of attrition, we were unable to grind out a result. Good chances were at a premium as Sunderland sought to block off the centre of the pitch and turn us in to a crossing side. It unfortunately worked as the game turned in to a drab draw and it finished Sunderland 0-0 Spurs at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland block off the centre
David Moyes intent from the opening whistle was clear. He set his side up in a very narrow 3-5-2 formation to take away the centre of the pitch. The three centre backs were close together, flanked tightly by the wingbacks. Ahead of them, he deployed a compact central midfield trio. Nothing or no one was going to get inside without being challenged or contested.
The formation had one aim without the ball. To turn us in to a crossing team. Sunderland were content to deal with the balls in to the box with the height and sheer number of bodies that they had defending the penalty area.
Spurs struggle to get between the lines
We know that Mauricio Pochettino likes to get his central midfield trio between the lines so that they can open up teams through the middle. Christian Eriksen buzzes about in the pockets of space that open up. Dele Alli starts his runs in to the box from here. Son likes to charge in down the channels between the centre and full backs.
We struggled to create with no real space to do this because of Sunderland having at least six players centrally. Opportunities were thus few and far between.
Christian Eriksen tried two audacious little chip passes from rare moments when he was free between the lines. John O’Shea twice retreated and stretched out a long leg to disrupt the pass as it came down on the other side of the back five before Harry Kane could get there.
Chances to open up spaces on the counter attack were also very rare. Sunderland were hesitant to come forward and very quick to get back in to position. Didier Ndong had an excellent match making some timely recovery challenges. However, Jack Rodwell was lucky to still be on the field after scything down Mousa Dembele from behind. Rodwell only received a yellow card. Other players this season, such as Granit Xhaka against Swansea, have been given their marching orders for cynically stopping counter attacks.
Sunderland’s narrow set up saw them shuttle across the pitch from side-to-side. Moving the central midfield trio over and then beating them back saw our other half decent chance of the first half where we got between the lines. Good movement of the ball from the touchline beat Rodwell, Ndong and Larsson’s ability to get back in to position. This left Victor Wanyama to sting Vito Mannone’s palms with a long-range drive.
It was a rare moment when we opened them up, but Wanyama was still faced with bodies in his way as the three centre backs stayed tucked in. This was to be our problem.
Spurs forced to cross
Sunderland’s narrow set up forced us in to becoming a crossing team. This saw us play a number of balls in to the box ranging from high lofted crosses to low driven balls, pull backs and cut backs. We attempted a whopping 29 but completed just 4 as Sunderland dealt with pretty much everything we threw at them.
On top of that, Sunderland had numbers in the box to defend them to ensure there was no time or space. This saw them block 7 of our 14 shots at goal, including getting something on our best opportunities.
Dele Alli took down one cross, but saw his left-footed drive deflected over when faced with seven players between him and the goal.
Kyle Walker also faced a red and white wall when he collected another cross that had been partially cleared. The on-rushing Javier Manquillo deflected his effort over the bar.
The following corner saw Victor Wanyama spurn our best chance of the game. The ball in was partially cleared to Son Heung-Min. He darted for the by-line and dug out a cross over nine Sunderland players to the vacant Wanyama. Victor, whose heading is very hit and miss, could not keep the ball down.
Sunderland early ball to Defoe
Sunderland’s tight shape, which tried to at least keep eight men behind the ball saw them have one, very effective, attacking outlet. Get Jermain Defoe in-behind from an early long pass.
It was quite successful in the first half. Defoe scampered clear, only to be denied by a combination of the recovering Toby Alderweireld and Victor Wanyama. Then he surprisingly out muscled Alderweireld to chase down another Rodwell punt in-behind. His perfect layoff to the excellently positioned Fabio Borini fortunately saw the Italian take a very loose touch and the opportunity was gone.
Just a minute later and Borini would collect the ball this time, but fluff the shot. Another long ball downfield for Defoe saw Eric Dier head clear. Borini picked up the loose ball and raced towards goal before shanking his shot straight at Michel Vorm.
Mauricio Pochettino’s subs had swung the game against Wycombe at the weekend. Here his changes were made with good intentions, but they had little or limited effect.
Seeing that we needed to bolster our efforts out wide, he introduced Moussa Sissoko on 73 minutes. Sissoko was supposed to get in to positions whereby he could get in down the flank to either play low or high crosses. However, he just looked ponderous and clumsy whenever he received the ball. His positioning was equally awkward as he often filled the spaces that Walker was bursting forward in to, stopping the full back from overlapping.
Vincent Janssen was then introduced to get more firepower on the field for any crosses we could get in. Janssen had a little over five minutes, no service and couldn’t influence the game, touching the ball just once.
Sunderland 0-0 Spurs overall
After the high of a last minute FA Cup win, this was a really flat performance. Sunderland played to shut us down in the middle of the pitch and it worked. We became a reluctant crossing side and didn’t get enough players in the box to compete with the sheer weight of numbers they had defending.
Interestingly Mauricio Pochettino switched back to a 4-2-3-1 for this game. In hindsight, a back three would have served us better here. Jermain Defoe and Fabio Borini were causing slight issues from the long balls looking for them. Without the ball, the pair made it difficult for Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld to play out from the back. A back three would have made it easier to play around them, but would’ve also got our full backs higher up the pitch from where they could cross. In the centre we could’ve gone with Kane and Janssen backed up by Dele Alli to get more targets in the box.
We’ve played some great football throughout this season and maybe Pep Guardiola’s comments about us being the best team in the league if you let us play were ringing in David Moyes’ ears. When the opposition comes to really frustrate us, we need to find ways to grind out a result.
Final score: Sunderland 0-0 Spurs.
MOTM: Mousa Dembele.