It's not quite happening for Sunderland just yet, but there are some encouraging signs. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
It's Talking Tactics time again!
Unfortunately we don't have pretty drawings this week showing just why we were stifled at Upton Park, instead you'll have to just have to put up with numbers. And words. And the name Kevin Nolan.
As usual there was a little more to Saturday's game other than 'they had more chances so one of them was bound to go in', so here goes...
Formations & Changes
Martin O'Neill made just one change to his Sunderland side as Titus Bramble came in for Carlos Cuellar - just as he had at half-time against Liverpool. Sam Allardyce's team was unchanged from the goalless draw against Norwich City. Both teams used variations of 4-5-1, with Kevin Nolan and Stephane Sessegnon supporting their respective strikers and a central midfield pairing protecting behind them.
The possession imbalance - 61-39% in West Ham's favour - was offset by Sunderland making 10 more interceptions and out-tackling their opponents (Sunderland won 25 tackles to West Ham's 19), yet it was what Sunderland did, or rather didn't do with the ball once they had it, that made the difference.
Shot Shy Sunderland
During O'Neill's captivating start as Sunderland manager, Jonathan Wilson noted that running alongside greater organisation was a spell of good luck - particularly when it came to long range shots. Granted, a high long-range shot success rate is difficult to maintain, but what is clearly noticeable so far this season is that Sunderland appear far more reluctant to chance their arm. On average, it musters five shots on goal per game this season; it managed that number on Saturday, with Fletcher's goal the only effort on target.
Supply And Demand
Recruiting Fletcher, it appeared that everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet this summer; that Sunderland needed a predatory striker to feed off of crosses from the wide players. Yet, this is another area of concern, as West Ham managed almost four times as many crosses (42 to 11). In fact, Mark Noble almost managed more crosses in open play (7) than Sunderland managed in the whole game. Only two attempted crosses found a Sunderland player, the most obvious being Seb Larsson's assist, although James McClean was unlucky to add to that number as his cross was misjudged by David Vaughan.
Having set up in what has been an accustomed Sunderland way since his appointment as manager, O'Neill must have felt let down by his primary playmakers. Sessegnon was dispossessed a game-high seven times, whilst McClean matched last week's performance by attempting to dribble just twice. The futility of Sunderland's attack was highlighted by the fact that the pair each played just 17% of passes forward. Larsson was generally more active in looking for openings whilst Fletcher's performance mirrored that of the Liverpool game. He took his chance, but had the lowest pass success rate of any outfield player, but was again one of those looking to generate some attacking momentum.
Clear Problems In The Air
In what looks like a pre-determined tactic, Bramble was tasked with dealing with the first ball, enabling John O'Shea - who does read the game better than his defensive partner - to sweep up if needs be. Bramble made 18 total clearances to O'Shea's seven; the ratio goes 12:1 when it comes to headed clearances.
Yet, Bramble only managed to clear seven (in total) successfully, which brought Kevin Nolan into the game more - particularly as the first half drew to a close. Carlton Cole beat Bramble in the air on a straight chip into the box by Mark Noble, from which Nolan hooked the second ball narrowly wide. Prior to the equalising goal, James Collins beat Bramble but narrowly headed over.
It was possibly Bramble's focus on being the first line of aerial defence that lead him to leave Nolan in the build up to West Ham's goal. Matt Jarvis hooked the ball back into play, but as the ball bounced towards the dead-ball line, Bramble strayed from Nolan - potentially with a headed clearance in mind - who he had been marking up until that point. It is also worth noting that Modibo Maiga won two more aerial challenges in the move; totalling four aerial successes in just 13 minutes of playing time.
Sunderland's inability to keep the ball, especially late on, contributed to the mounting pressure that finally produced the late equaliser. It is now the fourth time in three games that Sunderland has surrendered a lead, and it is easy to see why - they simply do not take care of the ball. Aside from those already mentioned, who most fans would expect better from, Fraizer Campbell gave the ball away four times in just 18 minutes as the visitors sought to close the game out.
The one positive - aside from Fletcher's goal return - is that the core element of the system is working; a decent base is being provided for Sunderland's attacking players to express themselves. Unfortunately the final third is not as fluent as it can be, but a tackle win percentage of 89% and double-figures in interceptions indicate that defensively the team is sound - despite the aerial shortcoming shown on Saturday.
All-in-all, it's depends on your viewpoint -a four-game drawing streak is certainly going to divide opinion. Cynics may look further back, towards the end of last season, whilst the more positive will be eager to see the return of Adam Johnson and the form of McClean and Sessegnon. Still, both needs to happen sooner rather than later.