Any top of the table side will obviously pose a test, and Sutton will present a serious physical challenge on Saturday. A direct, high tempo side which play with a real intensity, they press high up the pitch, looking to win the ball back swiftly as high up the pitch as possible, and commit men forwards to contest the loose balls their forwards create.
Their approach is apparent from the outset, as Sutton are one of the few teams who’ve put some thought into an innovative kick-off tactic, albeit one lifted straight from the 1980s playbook. The ball is played directly back to a centre back, who has time to delay his diagonal forward until the large number of players loaded up on the flank have got into advanced positions, before launching it into their midst.
This sets a tone for how they set themselves up. Sutton are adept at scrapping for second balls and are able to work their way down the line with throw-ins, fighting for possession and gaining ground with their tackling. They also pass for position, knocking balls down the flank in order to win throws higher up the pitch.. Aswad Thomas’ throws are useful down the left flank, and if they gain enough ground he can propel the ball into the box if the throw is within twenty yards of goal, although he doesn’t seem to have enough range to put the ball in the six yard box, and therefore Sutton don’t tend to set themselves up for a traditional near post long throw off him.
Daniel Spence, on the other hand, has a longer throw, and is able to put the ball into the goalmouth, but he tends to only use it on the right wing. On these occasions, Sutton will flood the near post, with Louis John, Jamie Collins and Kwame Thomas as targets, and another striker further on in the six yard box and others waiting for knock-downs in the box.
They’re also very quick with their restarts. Perhaps this is done more easily at home, where the advertising hoardings are close to the side of the pitch and the ball boys may be acting under instruction, but they often look to catch opponents out by taking throws swiftly, before the defence has set itself.
Sutton clearly work very hard on their set pieces, and while they use their height to their advantage, they can also spring surprises. Against Woking, for example, a right-sided corner was pulled back to the edge of the area beyond the far post, where John volleyed on goal.
Sutton’s ability to fight for possession, facilitated by a physical midfield, means it can be difficult to get the ball clear against them. This was exemplified by the opening minute of their game at Woking, which took place exclusively in the home side’s left as Sutton worked their way down the line and then contained Woking, scrapping for the ball in a narrow band between the edge of the area and thirty yards out.
However, as the commit their midfield high up the pitch to achieve this, it is possible to by-pass their midfield and get a run at the defence. Woking’s second goal against them illustrated this: not only were they able to break away effectively, but Sutton left themselves undermanned at the back so when the initial shot was saved, they didn’t have enough men around to win the second ball and Woking scored from the rebound.
In their previous game, against Dagenham, they were also punished when their desire to win the ball back early did not succeed. They appeared to have good shape when an innocuous high ball dropped on the half way line, but two men attacked it and failed to win possession, then their centre back came round the side of his man, trying to nick the ball off him, and failed to do so. As a result, Dagenham were able to get in behind the left side of the Sutton defence thirty yards out, and had the pace to capitalise.
At home to Maidenhead, Harold Odametey, who showed he could be a threat on the flank against Wrexham at the start of the season, ran from within his own half to score with an unmarked man at the far post as an option as once more Sutton committed men forwards but were bypassed on the break.
A goal Maidstone scored against them also showed how their desire to win the ball back as early as possible could be punished. It was a magnificent finish by Jack Paxman, but it followed three attempts to attack and win the ball on the edge of the area by Sutton; if at least one of those players had stayed on their feet, they might not have left themselves exposed, and would have bought time to regain their defensive shape.
It should be pointed out, though, that Sutton are an athletic side which regains ground quickly. Woking found on occasion when counter-attacking that if they didn’t play the killer ball swiftly, Sutton quickly got their players back into position, and with the defensive and midfield lines tightly packed together on the edge of the area, there was little room for the home side to pass their way through.
Sutton press hard, forcing everything to be done quickly. They are able to do this all over the pitch, and play at a very high intensity. Their shape and the dynamism of their midfielders allows them to crowd the middle of the pitch, and even when sides gain a decent position high up the pitch, their midfield set-up usually means Sutton can press in numbers to close them down.
Obviously, this makes big physical demands of the team, which might why a surprisingly high percentage of the goals they’ve conceded this season come in the second half. Of the fifteen goals they’ve let in, ten have come after the break and just three in the opening 39 minutes. A third of all goals they’ve conceded have come in the last 17 minutes.
Even when under pressure, Sutton will leave men up the pitch, so any clearance could become dangerous. The front players are all capable of winning aerial challenges, with Ross Lafayette the most obvious target man, and they are good at attacking the second balls created by those challenges around the penalty area.