Regular listeners to our podcast will know that I am not the naturally cheery type. I am easily annoyed and perpetually irritable. Just my nature. Strangely, football tends to be the one thing I never get annoyed by. When it comes to football I am more analytic than I am irritable.
But the League Cup defeat against Middlesbrough annoyed me. It really annoyed me. Not because we lost a game, however. As a Sunderland fan I became desensitized to that before I could even tie my own show laces. It simply comes with the territory.
I was annoyed because we never even gave ourselves a chance.
There often seems to be a view in the English mentality to football that good old 4-4-2 can provide the salvation to all the game's ills. When things are not going exactly how you want it tends to be the fall back position, the reset button. There is a sense of familiarity about it that creates an illusion of safety. Football's great comfort blanket. I can understand the appeal.
Indeed, in post-Stoke discussions with fans about possible tactical tweaks that could spark the club's misfiring attack into life, good old faithful proved the prominent choice.
'Play two up top and really get at them', they said. 'Go back to basics, enough with this lone striker nonsense', they said. 'It'll soon sort it out', they said.
Evidently, Martin O'Neill wavered similarly in his approach to the Middlesbrough game. The blueprint he has seemingly worked towards since the end of last season was discarded. The initiative surrendered in search of sweet safe familiarity.
Lets face facts here - 4-4-2, certainly in its traditional sense, is dead.
We are never shy to brand ageing managers 'dinosaurs' and consign them to the past, are we? The likes of Howard Wilkinson, Joe Kinnear, Dave Bassett. Dusty old relics in a football-forsaken warehouse. You know, the ones who simply won't move with the ever-changing times and instead insist upon living in the past. Surely the same logic should apply to a system?
The game has quite simply moved on, as it tends to do. Just like it moved on to make the 2-3-5 formation, that once dominated the English game, obsolete.
In fact it has singularly developed with the goal in mind of neutralizing the good old trusty two banks of four. Attacking flair players, neither midfielder nor forward, have been molded to infiltrate the space between the lines. Wide forwards, neither winger nor striker, trained to pin full backs back and isolate them from supporting their winger. Partnerships, the veritable building blocks of 4-4-2 being severed at every possible connection.
It is no longer a case of being able to throw what you perceive to be your best players into an off-the-rack formation pitting them in direct competition with their opposition counterparts and seeing who's man is better. Far more thought is required for that.
A Championship club came to our patch and effortlessly dominated midfield with a player we rejected completely running the show. We can try and hide it behind convenient clichés like 'gutless' and 'spineless', but they don't change the facts. They don't get to the root of the issue. Middlesbrough were vastly superior in both a tactical and technical sense and we didn't even make them have to do anything special to achieve it.
I remember the angst in the stands when the ball was with Carlos Cuellar or John O'Shea and was punted up field. Fans were crying out for it to be played on the ground through midfield, but the visitor's extra man in the central area meant that there was no one to play it to. When it was played into tight areas regardless and contested, Boro invariably picked up the loose ball as they had more players hunting it.
They controlled the middle and so we had to bypass it. The game was played entirely on their terms and we never once made them work for it. By lining up in a rigid 4-4-2 it was handed over - willingly. I don't care how many strikers you play 'up top'. If you can't engineer the positions through the midfield to bring them into the game then you are not 'getting at' anyone.
That's just one example, too. You could make similar points about how their wide men were dropped right onto the toes of the Sunderland full backs. Or how without the ball the central players could not risk pressing too high up the pitch as a failure to win possession would leave them overloaded behind. The goal came from a similar situation, in fact.
But, then again, why should any of it come as a surprise? It isn't as if we haven't seen English football moving away from the system until now it is rarely even seen. The likes of Chelsea and Arsenal haven't used it for a long time. The Manchester clubs tend to be very changeable in their tactics, though their resources allow it. There are the likes of Newcastle and Everton who sometimes use a variant of 4-4-2 but only with a wide player tucked in to make up the numbers centrally rather than hugging the touchline. All three promoted clubs avoid it. West Bromwich Albion, Spurs, and Stoke have moved away from it this season. There is barely anyone left who does dare use it. The two teams who were most stringently devoted to it last season, Wolves and Bolton, got relegated.
It isn't all just one big coincidence. There is a reason behind it.
I am not trying to rush straight to the opposite extreme here and suggest that not using the system will instantly provide the solution to everything for Sunderland right now. There are some pretty clear issues with confidence, and the ball isn't being moved anywhere near as quickly as it should be. The result is making for some static and lifeless football, but it is far from terminal.
Against Middlesbrough however - the only time it has been used this season - 4-4-2 was easily sufficient enough a part of the problem to make it abundantly clear that it has no part to play in the solution.