League Cup final tactical analysis – Sunderland 1 Manchester City 3


EPL and tactical analysis expert Chris Hearn takes a look the thrilling League Cup triumph for Manchester City over a spirited Sunderland outfit at Wembley. 

Manchester City have completed a come from behind 3-1 victory against Sunderland in the Capital One Cup final at Wembley.

Fabio Borini pounced on an uncharacteristic error by Vincent Kompany to open the scoring, before goals to Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas ensured City left Wembley with happier memories than their last visit to the iconic arena.

To use the old cliche, this was a game of two halves. Sunderland had things all their own way in the first period before City adapted well to completely dominate the second. Despite polar opposites when looking at both teams fortunes this season, this was labelled as a real danger game for Manuel Pellegrini’s side.

Sunderland have only lost one of their last five games against Manchester City, winning three and drawing once. The belief was there, and it showed in the first half as Sunderland’s strictly regimented back-line coped fantastically well.


Pellegrini opted for a front two, but preferred Edin Dzeko to Alvaro Negredo to partner the returning Sergio Aguero. He went for a 4-2-2-2 or 4-2-3-1, as the 25-year old’s position naturally drifts depending on the opposition full-back.

On the other hand, Gus Poyet went for a slightly modified 4-3-3, with Ki Sung-Yueng playing slightly closer to Adam Johnson in an attempt to release the pacey winger against Pablo Zabaleta. As City would generally dictate play, Sunderland set-up a deep lying defence in a 4-3-2-1. This was a key factor in their ability to soak up pressure and counter – but more on that later on.

Early patterns

The contest started at such a frenetic pace. It was particularly good to see Sunderland, obviously under clear instructions, to play out of defence. This was clearly in mind because of a target forward, and the fact that long punts upfield make players like Ki and Adam Johnson useless.

Their pressure on the Manchester City ball-carrier was quite good, but looked jittery when City’s attackers were allowed to turn and face with the ball.

Opening goal

City had scored 19 goals in the League Cup this season, conceding just once.

But Borini put Sunderland ahead on 10 minutes after a speculative long ball by Johnson, and as Vincent Kompany tried to clear, the Italian stole in and finished superbly past Kostel Pantilimon. This stemmed from Kompany having to compensate for Martin Demichelis’ lack of pace, however most of the blame should lie with the club’s Belgian skipper.

He operates primarily on the right side of central defence, but as Borini roamed left – targeting Demichelis – Kompany had no choice.This also meant that once Kompany was beaten, there was no covering defender and the task was made slightly more simple for Borini to open the scoring.

Sunderland’s first half comfort and City’s lack of penetration

The threat of Johnson and Borini in transition was a very real threat. Pellegrini likes to overload the midfield on a either side when attacking and City’s attacks came down the right more often than not in the first half. This forced David Silva to drift to that side, so that Aleksandar Kolarov was naturally in space because Johnson was failing to track back consistently.

The upside of Johnson not tracking back from a Sunderland perspective is that he’s naturally further upfield as a point of quick release, but in terms of risk versus reward it is a silly ploy if purely based on that. But the midfield trio of Sebastian Larsson, Lee Cattermole and particularly Ki have a great passing range in their repertoire and they managed to exploit this particular facet of play on multiple occasions, and on another day it might have paid bigger dividends.

First 45 evaluation 

Sunderland played the first half perfectly. Their tenacity and hunger meant a midfield three was all they needed to close down space in front of the back four, which meant their threat in transition was aided as I mentioned above.

 City, on the other hand, were too narrow and their ball movement was too slow to facilitate such a style. Navas was bound to come of the bench to provide width, as the ‘wide’ pair of Silva and Nasri clogged up central areas. Toure could not find space unless alterations were made, or personnel from the bench were called upon.

90 seconds was all it took 

After a botched set-piece involving Toure on 48 minutes, there were groans around Wembley from those in blue.

Their star man was yet to make his mark and a repeat of City’s last visit to the stadium looked increasingly likely. That was until the Ivorian decided to take the game by the scruff of the neck and equalise in amazing fashion. He picked up Pablo Zabaleta’s pass and fired a lovely curling strike up and over the hapless Vito Mannone.

He is a man for the big occasion, having now scored in an FA Cup semi final, FA Cup final and now a League Cup final. Samir Nasri followed suit with another magnificent  goal, an inch perfect volley.

 The pair of goals left Sunderland shell-shocked and quite simply it was a period of play that’s impossible to coach against. No system is impervious to this kind of devastating football, even if structurally, a few flaws were exposed throughout the 90 minutes here and there.

City dictate but fail to kill the game until late

Marcos Alonso was handed the quite horrible task of shackling Navas after the Spaniard was called upon by Pellegrini. The Fiorentina loanee coped supremely well in the most part, but offered very little defensively and thus could not support Jack Colback in any real capacity.

As the contest drew to a close, Sunderland took more risks, by bringing on Emmanuelle Giaccherini to provide pace and width against Zabaleta and Steven Fletcher to provide a goalscoring threat, plus Craig Gardner to do the same but from a deeper midfield area. Fletcher almost got Sunderland back on level terms with minutes to play, but he opted to shift the ball onto his preferred left and was dispossessed.

One would suppose quality and consistency in finishing chances is one of the major differences between two sides of such differing wealth. Minutes later, Navas would make it 3-1 and game over as the game edged into second half stoppage time. 

Sunderland conclusion

This was not a usual 1-0 lead for a supposed ‘smaller’ team leading against one of the giants. Sunderland, guided expertly by Poyet, earned their lead and kept it with intelligence.

For all of City’s big guns, had Pellegrini’s alterations not taken shape, Sunderland may have won this game. The pattern of the game suggested they were extremely comfortable defending a 1-0 lead in the knowledge that their counter-attacking threat was something to be wary of.

After a turbulent start to the campaign under Paolo Di Canio, their Uruguayan boss has steadied the ship both on the field and in the dressing room. 

It would take a brave man to bet against the Black Cats failing to keep their place in the Premier League, providing they transfer some of their fantastic cup form into the league campaign. Borini’s work-rate and poise in the final third gives them real options, while Ki was outstanding against an intimidating midfield.

Manchester City conclusion

A sign of a top team is when their game-plan looks shaky but they still finding the individual quality to win the match.

After being out-thought and out-fought, Pellegrini’s men rallied – their superior talent stocks proving too much for Sunderland. Pellegrini did very little tactically in terms of contributing to either of the opening two goals, as quite frankly they were more about an individual effort than anything else. But he was effective in shutting the game out.

Garcia’s introduction quelled the threat of Sunderland sub Giaccherini, as Poyet rolled the dice one last time. The introduction of Navas was expected by all, but Sunderland had no answer for his direct pace and superb link-up play. The Spaniard’s energetic display was rewarded with a goal on 90 minutes to confirm the destination of the League Cup for 2014.

City could yet reach Wembley on another two occasions this term in the FA Cup, but one must wonder whether that could cause them problems in the quest for ultimate league success.

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