The long-awaited away win has finally arrived. Wasn’t it great? There was a certain poetry to Morgan Whittaker, an ex-Swan against his old club, scoring the goal that finally secured Plymouth Argyle’s first win on the road of the campaign.
I hope you’ve dined out on the victory all week, at least when you weren’t distracted by the Greens’ valiant FA Cup effort against Leeds United. Because creeping up on us is another tough Championship trip. It’s the longest of the season in fact, with Argyle making the 806-mile round trip to the Stadium of Light to take on Sunderland this Saturday.
Argyle have already beaten the Sunderland this season. Back in November, Whittaker (obviously) and Finn Azaz scored first half goals to condemn the Black Cats to a 2-0 defeat at Home Park. Much has changed since then though; both sides have new managers for a start. Ian Foster remains (technically) unbeaten since taking the Argyle hotseat, whilst Michael Beale has taken over the reigns at Sunderland from Tony Mowbray.
Beale is…not well liked on Wearside. I’ve tried and failed to find the best way of expressing those sentiments without getting anybody into legal trouble. But could his side cause Argyle problems this weekend?
Style of play
It’s generally been a 4-2-3-1 or similar for Sunderland across much of the season. That hasn’t changed since Beale’s arrival in mid-December.
The strong availability of many key players has meant the need to make drastic changes hasn’t presented itself. Three Sunderland players – Trai Hume, Jack Clarke and goalkeeper Anthony Patterson – have started all 30 league game this season. Meanwhile Luke O’Nien, Dan Ballard and Dan Neil have started in all but one fixture each. The only ones they missed were all due to suspension.
If the aforementioned players remain fit (Ballard may be a doubt after a late knock against Middlesbrough last weekend), six places in Sunderland’s side effectively pick themselves. You can probably add in both Jobe Bellingham up front and Pierre Ekwah in midfield, both having started every league game since Beale’s arrival.
That’d leave three that are a little trickier to predict. Left back has been a problem area in recent times, but new arrival Leo Hjelde played the full 90 on his debut in Middlesbrough, and you’d suspect he’ll be trusted again. If not, Hume may switch sides from right back, allowing Jenson Seelt to backfill.
In the attacking positions there are plenty of candidates. Abdoullah Ba seems well liked by the Sunderland faithful, but he’s been in and out of the side. Chelsea loanee Mason Burstow has started the last two, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see former Argyle target Romaine Mundle make his debut, with Ba dropped after missing a sitter against Boro.
Whoever starts, Sunderland are yet another Championship side who like to keep the ball. Their 57% average possession is the fourth highest in the league, and only beaten by the three relegated sides. They also have the fifth-highest pass success in the league with 85%, and go long with just 9% of their passes. Only three teams (again, the relegated sides) play long passes less frequently, so don’t expect an aerial bombardment this weekend.
I’d consider Sunderland to be a step ahead of the teams who pass for the sake of passing. Because whilst they do enjoy knocking the ball around, they absolutely love running at defences. Sunderland have completed 342 dribbles this season, the highest number in the Championship. Clarke plays a major role in this, and Patrick Roberts will make a huge contribution too should he get the nod to play.
All of their build up play, their frequent passing and their proficient dribbling, is centred around getting a shot away at the earliest opportunity. Only Leeds have had more shots this season than Sunderland’s 457. In that sense, Sunderland’s willingness to shoot reminds me of Argyle, at least during Steven Schumacher’s tenure.
Conor Hazard will have to be on his toes. And don’t be surprised if Lewis Gibson improves on his already league-high number of blocked shots.
Jack Clarke is the star. If Whittaker has been a bona fide danger man for Argyle this season, Clarke has played the same role for Sunderland.
Clarke leads his side’s ranks for goals this season with 13 which, combined with his four assists, means he has a total of 17 goal contributions. Now, I feel it’s my duty to report that those figures aren’t a patch on Whittaker, who has 16 league goals and 6 assists for a total of 22 goal contributions. Clarke’s stats are also padded by the fact he’s scored five penalties to Whittaker’s zero.
But it’d be foolish to dismiss Clarke just because Whittaker’s goal contribution numbers are better. Clarke stands out in the league as a whole for his creative numbers. He’s in the top five for key passes, the top ten for big chances created, and has completed more dribbles than any other Championship player.
|Big chances created
Clarke’s proficiency running with the ball is an obvious standout, and it contributes heavily to Sunderland’s success as a whole. Indeed, in the earlier section I mentioned that Sunderland have completed more dribbles than any other side in the league. Even more impressively, they do this with a dribble success of 53%, another league-high figure.
Not only do Sunderland enjoy trying to run with the ball, they’re generally excellent at it. With only Hull City having a lower tackle success than Argyle this season, this feels like a potent weapon Sunderland can deploy to dominate the game.
It’s a similar story with ground duels. With 1215, Sunderland have won more ground duels than any other Championship side, and again that’s with a league-high success rate of 53%. Hume plays a vital role in this, with his 102 tackles completed by far the highest figure in the Championship – Coventry City’s Ben Sheaf is next on the list with 83.
At Argyle it’s the exact opposite. Both their number of ground duels won (867) and their success rate (48%) are the second-worst figures in the Championship. The arrival of Foster, combined with strong January additions, may go a long way to aiding Argyle’s cause for the rest of the season. If they’re not careful though, there’s a real danger they could be outfought by the Black Cats this weekend.
Sunderland will look to take advantage of these mismatches and get themselves into a lead. And the thought that they might petrifies me, because they have been the best frontrunners in the Championship. In fact, they’ve dropped just three points from winning position all season, the lowest number in the league. They’ve taken the lead 14 times in the league across the campaign, and failed to win just once.
The fact that the one occasion came during Beale’s short reign – a 2-1 defeat to Ipswich Town four weeks ago – probably hasn’t helped endear him to the Sunderland faithful.
I want to start with the defence, and specifically the centre backs. Ballard and O’Nien have formed to create one of the most settled defensive partnerships in the league. Alas, I’m not wholly convinced by either option.
Clearances are an obvious example, with Sunderland’s defenders regularly struggling to get the ball away from danger. Their figure of 462 clearances this season is the second-lowest in the league. And yes, I accept that the number of clearances a team make is directly proportionate to the amount of defending they need to do, and teams regularly on the front foot won’t have the opportunity to make more. Still, Sunderland take this to the extreme, making fewer clearances than the likes of Leicester City and Leeds, for whom defending is even less of a necessity.
For me, O’Nien is the primary area of concern. Consecutive Sunderland managers have used him at the heart of the defence, so I could be talking complete nonsense – it wouldn’t be the first time. Nonetheless, he’s always struck me as a midfielder playing out of position. Indeed, he played far more games as a midfielder than a defender before the last two seasons.
His figures do tend to be more befitting of a deep lying midfielder. His passing is a strength, with his number of passes completed in the top ten across the Championship. But he stands out a lot more for his interceptions than his clearances or blocks, a rarity for a centre back. And his aerial duel success rate of 55% is fine, but not brilliant when compared with the top defenders at this level.
Ballard I will admit has done better, and is clearly in the right position for his talents. But his main moment in the spotlight this season was scoring an own goal on national television against arch-rivals Newcastle United.
The attack isn’t short of deficiencies either. Some of their build up play is objectively excellent, with Clarke up there as one of the best players to watch in the division. With that in mind, they’re not nearly as good as they ought to be at the number one objective: finding the back of the net. Sunderland, as we’ve discussed, have taken the second-highest number of shots in the league. The fact they rank 12th for goals scored is therefore awful.
Much of that comes down to poor shot conversion. 9% of the shots Sunderland have taken this season have resulted in goals. That’s the fourth-lowest figure in the league, and the three sides below them (Queens Park Rangers, Stoke City and Sheffield Wednesday) are in relegation trouble. Sunderland have also hit the woodwork 13 times this season, with only Leicester City striking it more (16). If Sunderland were even slightly more accurate with their shooting, they could be right up there in the promotion conversation.
Contrary to the previous section, this is an area where Argyle have a sizable advantage. Shot accuracy and shot conversion have been major strengths this season. The Greens should trust themselves to score more than Sunderland, even if they have fewer opportunities.
Sunderland have more quality in their squad than Argyle. There’s a reason the two sides have been fighting at opposite ends of the table this season, even if that gap has lessened in recent weeks. Argyle though do have the advantage of being greater than the sum of their parts, whilst I think there’s an acceptance that Sunderland have a style of play that doesn’t fully take advantage of their talents.
I expect Sunderland will have the better of the game, particularly being the hosts. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see their chances fall by the wayside, and I trust Argyle to make the most of their opportunities no matter how limited they are. Having spent so long waiting, away wins could suddenly arrive like classic Plymouth City Buses. 2-1 to Argyle.