Sunderland AFC – Match Report vs. Coventry City (31/07/22)

The first fixture of Sunderland’s long awaited return to the EFL Championship resulted in a 1-1 draw at home to Coventry City. Whilst Coventry dominated possession, Sunderland controlled a sizeable proportion of the match through an aggressive mid-block. Using a man-marking system in central midfield to stifle Coventry’s ability to progress the ball, Sunderland subsequently attacked decisively in transition, utilising width effectively. A change of personnel allowed Coventry to alter their shape, and gradually assume control of the fixture – ultimately equalising in the 83rd minute. 

Ratings:

  • A1 – Very good, could play higher
  • A2 – Strong potential to play higher
  • B1 – Good, strong player at level
  • B2 – Potential to be a strong player at level
  • C – Average for the level, rewatch
  • D – Below average in this match

Jack Clarke

  • Nationality: English 
  • Age: 21
  • Date of birth: 23/11/2000
  • Current club: Sunderland
  • Career: Leeds United (Y), Leeds United, Tottenham Hotspur
  • Position: Winger, Left wing-back
  • Preferred foot: Right

Jack Clarke enjoyed a productive start to his 22/23 Championship campaign. Typically considered a winger who can operate from either flank, Clarke lined up as a converted left wing-back in Sunderland’s 5-2-1-2 formation. Clarke’s role in this setup aimed to place him in locations where he could maximise his strongest offensive qualities; he was often positioned around the last line, providing width and depth to Sunderland’s attacking structure.

Receiving in these advanced positions suited Clarke’s style as a dribbler. Whilst possessing both pace and strong close control, he lacked the explosive quality required to power past opponents from deeper areas. Instead, he excelled in congested spaces just outside the Coventry box: Clarke could reliably draw his marker in, before ghosting past them with measured exit touches, creating good separation in dangerous areas. In 1v1s, Clarke alternates touches with the inside and outside of his right foot, facilitating feints and crisp turns in either direction, furthering his value in these phases – he can comfortably attack either side of the defender.

Clarke has a taller stature compared to the diminutive frames usually associated with this agile type of dribbling. Although his build is fairly lean, he stands at 1.81m, a physical trait that saw Clarke used as a reasonably effective back-post threat. Clarke bagged Sunderland’s only goal of the game, easing his marker out of position and capitalising on a goalkeeping error to nod in a lofted delivery. His movements in these passages generally need refinement, and as Clarke grows more accustomed to the wing-back role, he should aim to be more anticipatory and attack this zone with greater aggression.  

Perhaps understandably, the 21 year old sometimes struggled defensively. Tasked with springing out to close down his opposite wing-back when they received possession, Clarke was overzealous, giving away numerous fouls. Later in the game, when faced up against Fankaty Dabo, a strong ball carrier and athlete, Clarke’s tendency to overcommit allowed him to be consistently dribbled past. Additionally, there were lapses of concentration when defending in a low-block. Clarke’s scanning in defensive phases was inconsistent, prompting incorrect positioning and a periodical failure to recognise the movement of opponents in his blindside. 

Whilst this fixture didn’t provide the opportunity to get a rounded picture of Clarke’s technical capabilities, there were glimpses of a strong base. There was a natural tempo to his game – his play rarely appeared rushed, and this, in conjunction with comfort on his weaker left foot, allowed for sound technical security.

Rating – A2

Clarke has endured a turbulent number of years following his multi-million pound transfer to Tottenham, with a spate of frustrating loan moves. Now a permanent fixture at Sunderland, with a settled role in the side, he has an excellent opportunity to build upon his solid technical base, and become a more rounded player. There is potential for him to develop within this wing-back role, especially if he can add explosiveness to his dribbling and make more purposeful movements in the box. Clarke should be aiming to play Premier League football within the next few seasons. 

Dan Neil 

  • Nationality: English
  • Age: 20
  • Date of birth: 13/12/2001
  • Current club: Sunderland 
  • Career: Sunderland (Y)
  • Position: Central midfield
  • Preferred foot: Right

Dan Neil’s appearance against Coventry marked his debut at Championship level. A product of Sunderland’s academy, the 20 year old lined up as part of a double pivot entrusted with implementing an intensive man-marking setup. Despite showing discipline and physical competence within this tactical arrangement, there were inconsistencies in other aspects of Neil’s performance.

At first glance, he offers some upside as a defensive presence; possessing rangy strides, Neil was capable of engulfing space, cutting off passing options with large steps, before pivoting to directly engage his opponent. Yet his positioning, particularly in less structured passages, threatened to undermine this upside. Neil showed an inflexibility in his defensive positioning – twice responsible for allowing passes into dangerous zones, initial positional errors were exacerbated by a lack of scanning. 

More concerning, however, was his play under pressure. On numerous occasions Neil, receiving the ball with his back to goal, failed to evade opposition pressure. He struggled to use his body effectively: efforts to shield the ball were poorly coordinated, and he wasn’t agile enough to disguise the direction of his turns. Additionally, the timing of Neil’s exit touch out of pressure was awkward, and consequently gave ample opportunity for opponents to win possession. 

When he did evade pressure, or received the ball with space in front of him, Neil was a useful ball carrier. Predominantly a right footed dribbler, his carries were smooth and confident, and aided by an upright posture which allowed the Englishman to clearly view the play unfolding ahead. The technical execution of passes, following carries and more generally, was varied. Where short, linking passes were played with reasonable comfort, attempts at a more expansive range, though often well spotted, didn’t quite have the right weighting.

Rating – B2

It is important to consider that this was Neil’s first game at Championship level. Although certain aspects of his play were unstable, he consistently displayed positive intent, which sometimes worked to his favour. To achieve greater consistency, Neil’s decision making needs to become more adaptable, which should be achievable as he becomes acclimatised to the Championship. 

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