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Manchester City 3-1 Sunderland: Tactical Analysis | Sunderland’s successful gameplan undone by little space

A side going for a quadruple, and another looking to maintain it’s Premier League status. Only in the Capital One Cup will you see such contrasting seasons clash in the final. But this was the case when Manchester City took on Sunderland at Wembley.

Undoubtedly City were the favourites but Sunderland came with a sure game plan and stuck by it, going into half-time with the lead and momentum. But City were always going to be threatening. As images of the 2013 FA Cup Final flashed in the minds of the Man City players and fans, they came back storming in the second half, scoring 2 goals in under 2 minutes before getting a late third as well.

It was harsh on Sunderland, who did extremely well, but City were always going to be a threat going forward. Here’s what happened.

Line Ups


Manchester City: Pantilimon, Zabaleta, Kolarov, Kompany, Demichelis, Toure, Fernandinho, Nasri, Silva (Garcia 77′), Dzeko (Negredo 88′), Aguero (Navas 58′)

Sunderland: Manone, Bardsley, Alonso, Brown, O’Shea, Cattermole (Giaccherini 77′), Ki, Colback, Larsson (Fletcher 60′), Johnson (Gardner 60′), Borini

Sunderland’s gameplan

Quick direct passes, a side injected with pace, led by clinical finishers – that is City summed up in one sentence. Gus Poyet recognised the danger they posed if allowed to play their football and had to come up with a game plan that was both disciplined defensively, yet not restrictive in attack.

Thus, as expected, Sunderland sat back and invited pressure, but made sure they didn’t give too much space to the City players. The idea was to retrieve possession, either by an interception or a hopeful goal-kick as City weren’t allowed to penetrate the defensive line. Once they got possession, the ball was played out till the half-way line or cleared to a midfielder who usually found himself in space (namely Adam Johnson & Lee Cattermole), who would then play a long ball over the top aiming for the lone Italian, Fabio Borini. A simple approach, which was surprisingly effective for 45 odd minutes against the billions of Man City.

It was one such ball over the top that led to Borini’s early goal. Sunderland tried the above a couple of times before it eventually paid off, owing to a Kompany error. Full credit to Borini though who had quite a bit to do and didn’t disappoint, finishing with the outside of his boot.

That same gameplan was followed time and again, and City were repeatedly caught out. That long ball over the top was matched by advancing midfielders and full-backs, adding numbers to the Black Cats’ attack. But with a slender lead, a single plan was always going to be found out and the effectiveness of the simple approach reduced as the game wore on, culminating into total Man City domination.

All Man City needed was some space

Throughout the first-half, Man City failed to get past the Sunderland defence. For a side filled with stars, you’d expect them to perform much better in breaking a tidy defensive line. But besides one or two nifty balls over the defence, Manchester City had nothing. Set-pieces seemed to be their best avenue, something you’d expect their opponents to rely on.

Even as the second half got on, the story was the same. The urgency was there, but lack of ideas to get past the line of players. Then there was a moment around the 53rd minute. Free-kick in a good position, one of the best chances to get a meaningful shot on Vito Manone’s goal. But, shockingly, Nasri played a short pass to Toure and we were back to passes around the box and a defensive line from Sunderland. Didn’t quite get why Manchester City didn’t take the opportunity to just strike that, it wasn’t even a quick free kick.

But thankfully for Manchester City, shortly afterwards (in the same phase of play), Toure pulled one back with a brilliant long range effort. That goal rejuvenated City, and pulled Sunderland players out temporarily to add something in attack. It created space at the back for City to exploit, and a quick counter allowed Manchester City to take the lead, seconds after equalising. It was a matter of seconds in which Sunderland didn’t maintain their compactness, and the Citizens took full advantage, the first time in the game they were able to dictate terms with their type of football. All they needed was some space.

How Man City protected themselves from a Sunderland revival

With Sunderland needing a goal again to get back into the game with the score at 2-1, a similar approach was likely to be followed by Sunderland to create quick chances for themselves. Ball to midfielders at half-way line, long-ball over the top, that was the gameplan.

Pellegrini realised this and deployed his side to prevent exactly that from taking place. David Silva and Fernandinho were positioned in the heart of the midfield to break play up. The two were required to win the ball back from the Sunderland midfielders at the half-way line, or atleast prevent them from having a clear shot at a through ball to Borini & Fletcher. Quite a masterstroke from the Chilean boss, nullifying Sunderland’s main threat.

The other threat that they offered involved the full-backs (explained later). But with Adam Johnson withdrawn, and Borini the only real wide attacking man, Zabaleta & Kolarov had an easy defensive duty of just neutralising the threat from the full-backs. Even as the superior side, Pellegrini realised that they needed to ensure a shock wasn’t on the cards and had to play it safe, preventing Sunderland from playing through their strengths before trying anything.

David Silva (5), Fernandinho (4), Pablo Zabaleta (5) & Aleksandar Kolarov (4) had 18 successful tackles between them, with those individual ones being the highest on the pitch. Pellegrini’s defensive approach was pulled off to perfection.

Sunderland response opens the game up

Once that second goal went in, it seemed to be all over for Gus Poyet and his boys. But Sunderland weren’t looking to sit back in a rare Wembley appearance. They went with the intentions of putting on a show, and claiming the League Cup. This showed in their football, the players were inspired to get back into the game.

Sunderland started getting forward with more about them in attack, full-backs Alonso & Bardsley were providing an avenue of attack. These two were deployed with the intention of providing width to the side. The thing about advancing full-backs, unlike wingers, is that they won’t be marked, so they’re largely making free unmarked runs down the flanks. Adam Johnson faded away after the opening part of the first half and was withdraw, replaced by Craig Gardner. Gus Poyet thus looked to provide numbers to Sunderland in the middle of the park, with full-backs pushing on. The midfielders didn’t get into the box too much, but rather looked to play something in for their attackers.

This attacking intent automatically acted as a defensive ploy, preventing Manchester City themselves from being too adventurous, the players sat back and didn’t get complacent, showing respect to their opponents. The space in Sunderland’s defence, unlike in the first half, was a tempting scenario and allowed Manchester City to play a bit as well. All in all, the last quarter of the game was an open affair; Pellegrini’s men had the lead but the trophy wasn’t secure with Sunderland making a decent case for themselves.

As the game drew to a close, Sunderland pushed more players forward. Full-backs and midfielders were higher up than before and no cover at the back. This allowed City in on a counter and a five on two situation (to Man City’s favour); this led to the 3rd goal and the killer blow as City secured the Capital One Cup.

Where does this leave them?

Manchester City have more to look forward to with a quadruple still on the cards (albeit an unlikely chance at the Nou Camp). For Sunderland, their cup run(s) have inspired their survival push and they can take a lot of heart from the contest. Both sides still have a lot to play for; Sunderland won over many with their performance, but Manchester City needed/wanted that trophy more than their opponents. They’ll be delighted at having secured a trophy early on.

To read more such Tactical Analysis on big games, head this way

Sami Faizullah

Sami Faizullah

Co-founder and Chief Editor here. Obsessed with tactics. Keen follower of young players. Creator of #TalentRadar.
Sami Faizullah

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