In the late afternoon on Saturday, Manchester United will be hosting Sunderland at Old Trafford for a Premier League tie. The Black Cats are led by Martin O'Neill and under the Northern Irish manager, there is not a lot variability to their tactics. Their shape is a fairly typical 4-4-1-1 and they are heavily reliant on width when attacking. Only 26% of Sunderland's passes this season have been played in the middle third of the pitch (38% on the left-side, 36% on the right-side) and that's the second least in the league. Perhaps the only thing that is variable is their approach: against big sides, they tend to sit back more than they do against foes they feel more on par with or better than.
* The dotted black boxes are the spaces between the lines Sunderland often allows due to the vast amount of vertical space their central-midfielders must guard.
Sunderland's defense is a standard back four: former United man John O'Shea and Carlos Cuellar are the first-choice center-backs while Danny Rose, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur, and Craig Garnder are typically the starting full-backs. Against other mid-table to bottom-of-the-table sides, O'Neill will sometimes instruct his center-backs to push up nearer to the central-midfielders so that the space between the lines can be squeezed. In a recent match at Norwich City, it was striker Grant Holt and midfielder Anthony Pilkington that continually got in behind the Sunderland defense. It's quite alarming when Holt, not exactly a man blessed with a lot pace, is exposing a high-line. O'Neill doesn't have central-defenders at his disposal that have enough pace to effectively execute this tactic.
Presumably though, the reason why Sunderland attempt to push their back four up higher is because their central-midfielders are not capable of guarding so much space. Sebastian Larsson and Craig Gardner are decent on the ball but neither is mobile nor combative enough to be an enforcer in the center of the park. This was generally the main role of captain Lee Cattermole prior to his recent injury.
Against Chelsea last weekend, Sunderland stood off and they only attempted to close down when the ball was passed into midfield. Even then, the deeper of Chelsea's two double-pivots often enjoyed plenty of time on the ball. Chelsea's center-backs had all the time they could ever want when they were in possession as well. Sunderland's lines were a good 5-10 yards behind in comparison to their position at Norwich.
Against United, expect Sunderland to do something similar. If O'Neill, though, is wary of giving too much time on the ball for United's midfielders -- particularly the likes of Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, and Paul Scholes -- or if he feels they're vulnerable to being pressed, he may instruct Gardner and Larsson to go forward and close down. If the back four join in on pushing higher, then Sunderland will be ripe for balls played in behind their slow backline. If their midfielders push up but their center-backs sit back, then there will be plenty of space for Wayne Rooney between the lines. O'Neill will have to pick his poison: space will either be conceded behind his defense, between his midfield and defensive lines, or ahead of his midfielders.
When Sunderland do have possession (45.6% on average, 14th in league), they'll attempt to work the ball forward in a relatively direct fashion. There will be some calm passing that occurs in midfield, particularly down the left-side. In general though, Larsson, with his decent range of passing, will attempt to spray long diagonal balls to the flanks when he can while Gardner will attempt to play passes forward into Stephane Sessegnon and Steven Fletcher. Rose is a key man in possession and this is evident by the left-back leading his side in passes completed per game (this doesn't include Matthew Kilgallon since he's only started two league games).
Sunderland's ultimate goal is to get the ball in the box for the physical Fletcher so that either he, or Sessegnon from knock-downs, can try to convert chances. Typically, these chances come from the wide areas. More often than not, Adam Johnson is the winger on the right while James McClean is on the left. Both wingers try to beat their markers one-on-one but both are inconsistent in doing so. This is a reason why that, as a whole, Sunderland's creativity blows hot and cold. They are overly dependent on their wingers. Fletcher, though, if he gets his chances, is a dangerous threat to score. Sessegnon is inconsistent, as well, but he's capable of mazing through defenders to create his own chances.
On the left, McClean gets better support in attack from Rose than does Johnson on the right from either Gardner or Phil Bardsley. Whoever the right-back is, he tends to stay back and isolate his right-winger in attack. Defensively, both McClean and Johnson have the tendency switch off defensively and strand their full-back. Antonio Valencia, Rafael, Ashley Young, and Patrice Evra should be able to create overloads on their respective flanks for United. The key battlegrounds in this game could be in the wide areas.
On set-pieces, Larsson is deadly: not many can match his accurate service for Fletcher and Cuellar while he's also a threat to curl one into any of the four corners of United's goal. This should definitely concern Sir Alex Ferguson because defending against set-pieces has been a vulnerability for United as of late. Scheme and personnel wise, the Red Devils are fine in their hybrid zonal-marking system -- it's merely about execution and knowledge of responsibilities.
Pablo Zabaleta's goal last weekend in the derby came from the zone, at the top of the penalty area, that Valencia had previously been occupying on corners prior to him being substituted off. Phil Jones, his replacement, had no clue what his set-piece responsibilities were when he came on. Had he known, United could have possibly prevented the Argentine's equaliser. These sort of mistakes cannot happen against Sunderland or they may be able to steal a result. The Black Cats have only scored six open play goals this season, the worst in the Premiership. Therefore, if United can prevent them from scoring set-piece goals, they'll very likely to earn all three points on Saturday.