Tony Mowbray says Sunderland will have to employ the ‘dark arts’ to offset Luton Town’s set-piece advantage – or, better still, avoid conceding them at all. The Black Cats take on the Hatters in the Championship play-off semi-final, with the first leg taking place at the Stadium of Light tomorrow tea-time.
Sunderland go into the game without any fit specialist centre-backs, having lost Danny Batth, Dan Ballard, and Aji Alese to injury during the second half of the season. Batth, Ballard, and Alese are all 6ft-plus, as is fellow injury victim Ross Stewart, and that leaves them with midfielder Pierre Ekwah as their only fit six-footer to face a Luton team packed with tall, powerful, players.
Over the course of the season, it is no surprise that 22 percent of Luton’s goals have come from set-pieces, while just 11 percent of Sunderland’s goals have come via that method. Mowbray and his staff have been working ways to make up for that height deficit, and one method is to restrict to a minimum the set-piece opportunities they allow their opponents – a strategy that worked a treat in the 3-0 win at Preston on Monday, where Sunderland conceded just two corners and one free-kick throughout the entire 90 minutes against the Lillywhites.
But where Sunderland do have to defend set-pieces, Mowbray’s must find other – legal – means of nullifying the threat. “You can only do what you can do on set-plays – the secret is not to give them any!” said Mowbray.
“Try to keep the ball down the other end of the pitch as much as you can, try to keep it on the grass as much as you can. Then you have to find a way to stop them.
“If you’re 5ft 8in, how do you stop a 6ft 3in centre-half who is really aggressive, getting first contact on that ball and heading it towards your net? Our job as coaches is to give them the idea, show them maybe the ‘dark arts’ of football because a 5ft 8in player is not going to beat a six footer when the ball comes in the box, but he needs to know what he has to do, seconds before the ball comes in, how to use his body, find a way,”
“You have to try and put your body in the way, try to stop them heading the ball with power, without fouling him you have to find a way to disrupt his running pattern.”
Against Preston, Sunderland did manage to limit the hosts set-piece opportunities. Mowbray said: “They became really physical, to be honest, in the game.
“We had to try and keep calm to not give fouls away – they ended up being the team that gave a lot of fouls away because they were chasing the ball. I thought the team handled that situation really well.
“We talked about it: keep the ball on the grass, keep it moving, take quick free-kicks, take quick corners, let’s keep the ball and play football. You can’t stop a team booting it 70 yards up the pitch into your half, of course, and then you have to try and win the headers.
“We do a lot of work on trying to make sure we don’t make it a fight, we try to put our bodies in the way, take the knock, get the ball, get the pass away, and now we are playing and we can get our shape again. But I do think this game is going to be more difficult because Luton are a very physical, athletic, team who can go almost man-for-man and deny you space.
“They don’t worry about the space behind them because they feel they can deal with it.”
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