Although Tony Mowbray continues to develop his favoured 1-4-2-3-1 and 1-3-4-3 formations, Sunderland do not seem to be attached to any particular style of play and the key to the Black Cats‘ success is neither shape nor style, but hard work and aggressive high pressing in midfield.
In defence they press high, but mainly against the opponent’s midfield letting go of the defenders completely. Pressing in the center is done in a narrow and tight area to compact the centre and force the rival to make a mistake. This means that once they have recovered the ball they generally have few options for fast progressive play. They position themselves close to the rivals’ playmakers always protecting this zone with a deeper positioned midfielder and an additional one or two players positioned behind.
Once the ball is recovered, they play very fast. They dominate the match in possession, but the key objective is always to pass forward. Sunderland are quick to burst through the middle and when looking for free-space passes, they use a variety of options: through balls, long passes, crosses, but also combinations of short plays. Everything is allowed as long as they move forward.
In attack they are quite flexible and in transition they are fluid and unpredictable. They use the wings quite often. However their wide play does not aim only for crossing, but relies on building up combination play in the wide areas. They exploit the space available there, but one would be wrong who would think that playing with wings is the basis of their system. It’s just a variant they use when the opportunity arises. They don’t shy away from crossing, especially from the right flank, but they can change sides quickly and gain ground with fast and short passing combinations.
Mowbray‘s offensive style is based on attacking space and free selected players in individual attempts to create an advantage.