Trips to Carrow Road are usually loathsome for Sunderland, and yesterday was ultimately no different. A torrid opening half hour saw the Black Cats two goals down - and deservedly so - before Martin O'Neill's men roused themselves via Craig Gardner's strike just before half-time. An Alamo-esque second half ensued but, unable to find another goal, the Wearsiders were left staring at their fifth defeat in the last seven games.
A tale of two 4-4-1-1 formations. Sunderland recalled James McClean to the starting lineup, with Jack Colback benched again in favour of a central midfield of Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner. McClean would begin the game on the left wing, but soon swapped with Adam Johnson in relocating to the right. Stephane Sessegnon was again preferred as an attacking midfielder-cum-auxiliary striker, but was faced with a new partnership in the second half, as Connor Wickham came on for the injured Steven Fletcher as Sunderland's lone frontman.
Chris Hughton's Norwich side also employ what is by and large a popular system in English football currently. However there is a noted difference between their formula and Sunderland's; Hughton's men look to create from throughout the midfield, particularly from the centre, whereas Martin O'Neill's side are overly reliant on their wide men producing something. Indeed, a goal from each side offered perfect examples of this. Norwich's second goal came from a deep through ball from Bradley Johnson - who was excellent - in the centre, whereas Craig Gardner's strike for Sunderland came as a result of left-winger Adam Johnson drawing two men to his attention before laying the ball off to his midfield partner.
A High Defensive Line
Last week, Talking Tactics outlined the need for a central defender with pace in order to aid Sunderland's struggling central midfield. The idea was that, with a quick centre half, the side could play a higher defensive line, thus compressing the space the central midfield was required to cover.
That fast centre back is still not present on Wearside, but yesterday saw a concerted effort to play a higher defensive line. As shown above with where Matt Kilgallon received the ball, even in a first half where Sunderland were very poor and gave away possession far too often, the visitors pushed high up the pitch. In a way this aided the midfield - particularly in the second half, when Norwich made no real effort to attack - but it also directly contributed to the home side taking the lead in the first place.
After just two minutes, Kilgallon was forced into a cynical foul on Grant Holt, with the opposing front man seeking to get in behind and exploit the vast space between Simon Mignolet and his defenders. Then Anthony Pilkington's goal, which was the eventual winner, came as a result of a Bradley Johnson through ball that surprised Sunderland's high defence, leaving the Norwich man plenty of time to finish with composure.
Without a quick central defender, playing a high line is a risky strategy - even if the likes of Holt are unlikely to accelerate away into the vacant space. Still, it was the right move from O'Neill and, were it not for a fairly awful performance from Kilgallon, it may very well have worked. Indeed, it worked perfectly for Norwich in the first half, where their own high line completely nullified Steven Fletcher.
The most immediate beneficiaries of a higher defence were Larsson and Gardner. This was not so much the case in the opening half - where possession went astray all to often - but, in the second, with the home side dropping ever more deep, the moving up of Cuellar and Kilgallon in turn encouraged Sunderland's two central midfielders to push forward more, something that has been hugely lacking so far this season.
Craig Gardner spared his own first half blushes with a well-placed strike right before the break, but - even though many of his forward passes went awry - it is notable that he added a directness to Sunderland's play that the previous midfield partnership of Larsson-Colback has been unable to do. As shown, Larsson's forward balls still overwhelmingly go out wide, whereas Gardner sought to get the ball into Sessegnon, Fletcher or Wickham with greater speed than the benched Jack Colback has so far this season. It was only wasteful second half finishing that stopped the Black Cats salvaging something in a much improved performance after the interval.
Finally, Sunday saw Connor Wickham given a real chance to prove himself. It came by way of an injury to Steven Fletcher, but few could question Wickham's selection ahead of Fraizer Campbell, as the former Ipswich man gave an excellent account of himself.
Though Fletcher was starved of service in a dire opening half, it is still true that Wickham was much more involved and in more central - thus more dangerous - positions. The latter was integral in Norwich dropping very deep in the second half (something represented by the graphic showing the home side's clearances, below), and showed great skill in collecting long, lofted balls. His passing success rate was poor - only 53% - but was indicative of him turning towards goal and trying to thread passes to onrushing midfielders and Sessegnon.
Surprisingly, for such an impressive performance, he failed to register a shot on goal - save for the offside goal he converted following a long range Danny Rose volley. That isn't as worrying as it may sound, however. Wickham's role was one designed to allow his side to get the ball forward quickly and encourage players to run from deep, with him the hold-up man. He did well, causing Ryan Bennett and Sebastien Bassong no end of problems with his evident physical presence.
A hugely frustrating game of two halves. In the first, Sunderland were lazy in possession, with Norwich tidy and the more incisive. Yet, their two goals could still have been avoided; the first was a poor example of defending a set-piece, the second a poor example of Kilgallon and Cuellar's communication.
In the second half, the Black Cats did everything but score. Norwich defended well but still can count themselves fortunate - how Matt Kilgallon missed an open goal is anyone's guess, and Stephane Sessegnon should have scored too. There were positives for Martin O'Neill, but the most worrying aspect was that it took his side going two goals down before Sunderland really began to play.