So once more Sunderland fail to take a positive result from a winnable game against a lower ranked Premier League side. This game was again being billed as a must win. Even a late equaliser wouldn't have placated some of the fans frustration at this stage. There's been a lot of discussion about the three at the back system being one of the main reasons for our defeat. How can you win a game with seven defenders? It's a fair question, but I don't think three centre backs is the issue.
I've been a long campaigner for Sunderland to employ a system that incorporates wing backs. My preference is the 'Christmas Tree' formation. But I think three at the back gives you a solid base to attack from. If you're going to play a system with free roaming attacking players, like we did on Monday, then two holding players are a key part if the side. I'd also argue that Lee Cattermole and Liam Bridcutt are two of our best central midfield options. Yes, they are both regularly deployed in holding roles, but they add drive and determination to the centre of the park. They commit to positive movements in the game. They don't take the easy options. They try and make things happen in their own positions. Whilst their remit on the pitch may be more defensive minded, they are still positive in their play which is vitally important. I couldn't say the same about our other options in that area.
The full backs are a big part of Gus Poyet's system regardless of formation. Now, we don't have the best full backs in the league. That logic could be applied to any area on the pitch when it comes to Sunderland. But the wing back roles create more opportunities for the full backs to get involved in areas where they can be most effective from an attacking perspective. In this system these players are an obvious threat. Well, that's the concept anyway. Whilst individually we're not great all over the pitch, I think the use of the wing back can in effect create more threat than some of our other midfield options.
Again I'm being harsh on our midfielders, but we rarely see players like Jack Colback and Seb Larsson taking responsibility. They're tidy and unspectacular. Sometimes decent, sometimes abject. Then there's Craig Gardner. Yes he might stick one in from distance, he's a fantastic penalty taker and can be good from dead ball situations. But in the actual game itself he's often found wanting, laboured and slow in possession, the game passing him by. Our full backs, I believe, offer more than these options when they get into advanced areas. Three centre backs provides them with the cover to do so.
I feel it was right to bring Ki into the side in that free hole behind the forwards too. He made an excellent impact at Anfield and had a decent game on Monday night. But probably the most controversial aspect of Gus's system was the fact Adam Johnson remained on the bench when the team was announced. This, in my opinion, was the main failure against West Ham. Had Johnson played from the start, say in place of Wickham, we could have had two free roaming attacking midfielders in behind Fabio Borini. Borini deserves a run through the middle and it seemed the system on Monday just didn't suit him. He had his worst game for months. I don't see the logic in accommodating Connor Wickham at the expense of Borini's quality. That for me is the real question here, not the three at the back. If Johnson had started, would he have made the difference?
Johnson has been indifferent. He's been relatively poor since the Newcastle game. It was more surprising he didn't play because he's our top scorer and that he made such an impact at Liverpool, regardless of his indifferent spell at the club.
Then there's the centre backs themselves. I actually thought Santiago Vergini had his best game for the club and recovered well from his nightmare during the week. He got on the ball and was confident. Most importantly I thought he defended pretty well. A few misplaced passes aside I thought he was one of our best players. I guess the argument from the three at the back naysayers is that he almost had a free role. That's a fair point. My argument would be that had Johnson played from the start of the game then and played as well as he did when he came on, then no one would have noticed Vergini's role in the game and then thought of it as a negative? People may be talking about how the set up offered a lot of freedom to our attacking players instead.
We did change the system when Johnson came on and we were in the as ascendency. But is the because of the system or the player? I'd argue latter. We've seen plenty of poor performances from the team in more orthodox systems during home games, often containing Adam Johnson. Two league goals in two months isn't good reading. I don't blame Gus for sticking with a system that saw us look the most dangerous we have in ages at Liverpool either. The key thing here though is the AJ was an integral part of that excellent spell. Later in the West Ham game things went a bit Steve Bruce too, when we just chucked a load of forwards on. Not great, and smacked of desperation. Let's face it, we've been desperate for months.
When we discussed this on last week's Wise Men Say podcast, I suggested maybe going to a 4-2-2-2. This is something I still would have done on reflection and incorporated Johnson in place of a centre back. BUT. I can see why Gus stuck with it. We lost the game because we can't defend properly as a team in set piece situations and we can't take our chances. I think we lost the game because we didn't start Adam Johnson. These two things were the greater overriding factor in this and make the three centre backs almost a moot point. I think maybe it's something different, so it's easy to point to and blame in this case. Or maybe people just think it's gash. Whatever the reason, I don' think it was the cause of our failure on Monday.