Talking Tactics: Everton (A)
For the second time under Martin O'Neill, Sunderland has been hit for four. Look out for that line the next time Steve Bruce opens his mouth.
With the Lads enduring a torrid record at Goodison Park in recent times, David Moyes decided to rest a number of players only to get our hopes up and then bring them crashing down as his nippy midfield - guarded by man-tree Marouane Fellaini - ran a tired visiting outfit ragged.
Having touched upon the need for change, O'Neill made just one; David Vaughan coming into what would be a five-man midfield. The Welshman replaced Nicklas Bendtner in the starting line-up, meaning Stephane Sessegnon would lead the line on his own. Phil Bardsley and Lee Cattermole would once again play through the pain barrier to assume their natural roles in the team.
Everton, having played on the Saturday much like our good selves, made a number of changes and opted to rest Tim Cahill, Leighton Baines, Sylvain Distin and Nikica Jelavic. Everton deployed a 4-5-1 system - matching our own - with Magaye Gueye out on the left, where he had tormented Sunderland in the FA Cup. Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman would revolve around the central pivot of Fellaini to dictate the play, and James McFadden was plucked from footballing wilderness to play down the right.
As the average player positions for each team shows, much of Everton's supremacy came from the central midfield trio. Throughout the game, they were never too far apart; allowing for the type of short, quick passes that can generate momentum but it also proved difficult for Sunderland to play through them. The tactic to keep Everton's two midfield playmakers in close tandem worked superbly - as Pienaar made five key passes, an assist, and scored the crucial second goal. Osman achieved similar, with the pair both hitting the 90% mark for pass completion. Between the pair, only five long balls were played; an indication of how their shape enabled them to control the ball, and ultimately, the game.
Seb Larsson, generally, was very narrow, so it came as no surprise to see almost half (47%) of Sunderland's attacks stem from its left-hand-side. Yet the turning point was the first substitution of Cattermole. Within a 12-minute spell of Sunderland's captain being withdrawn, Everton struck a further three times as the switch to 4-4-2 - initially made when Bardsley was substituted - was unable to be maintained without Cattermole's presence.
Throughout, Sunderland failed to provide sufficient to support to Sessegnon and his tendency to drop deeper to dictate the play was negated by Fellaini's presence in midfield. Much of Sunderland's attacking play arrives through Sessegnon receiving possession and then laying it off, encouraging midfield players forward, but without someone ahead of the former PSG man (the absence of Bendtner highlighted his increasing importance to the side) the play became cluttered - Sessegnon had dropped deep and where Craig Gardner would usually advance beyond the front men, he seemed unwilling to do so.
As the league table would have had it up until the final whistle, what was an evenly-matched affair proved anything but.
Everton, with an FA Cup semi-final on the horizon, unsurprisingly had a spring in their step but such supremacy in the middle can be chalked up to David Moyes. Resting key players had the potential to backfire - as it did against Liverpool in the league meeting at Anfield - yet his side exposed a sluggish Sunderland core.
Having fallen behind, O'Neill sought to retrieve something from the game but opening the game up only favoured a fresher Everton side. So we dust ourselves down, and prepare for Wolves at home on Saturday. As O'Neill rightly pointed out in the aftermath, Sunderland has responded particularly well to setbacks since he has been in charge, so it will be interesting to see what the reaction will be.