After acknowledging the need for his side to be more productive in front of goal Gus Poyet made the decision to switch to a 5-3-2 formation featuring two centre-forwards – one of which was new signing Jermain Defoe who would make his Sunderland debut against his former club.
Billy Jones returned to first team action with Santiago Vergini moving inside to join John O’Shea and Wes Brown completing the centre-half trio, and Jack Rodwell replaced the suspended Liam Bridcutt in midfield.
Mauricio Pochettino was faced with something of a selection crisis ahead of the visit of Sunderland with the likes of Erik Lamela, Federico Fazio, Vlad Chiriches, Younes Kaboul and Ryan Mason all missing through injury.
Spurs lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation topped by the in-form Harry Kane.
Sunderland were poor in their 1-0 defeat to Liverpool last time out in the Premier League, and it was important that the Black Cats returned with a more spirited performance at White Hart Lane on Saturday.
After much stubbornness throughout his Sunderland tenure Gus Poyet now seems willing to tinker with his system in order to cure Sunderland of their inconsistencies, and with the Black Cats slipping ever closer to a potential relegation battle by the week, it’s crucial that the Uruguayan addresses these issues as quickly as possible.
Poyet has bemoaned the lack of the kind of player eager to get in behind a defence for much of this season, but in Jermain Defoe he now has his man. The task ahead for the Black Cats boss now is to utilise the 32-year-old to his full potential for Sunderland’s benefit before it’s too late, and a change in formation is probably motivated by that necessity.
With the arrival of Jermain Defoe triggering a drastic change to the system, I’m going to take a close look at the pros and cons of the 5-3-2 we saw implemented against Spurs, and what effect it could have on the remainder of our season.
Five at the back
Based upon the pure numerical advantage, it would be easy to assume that the inclusion of five defenders translates as a safer and more conservative approach destined to be more successful than your standard four at the back -however that assumption would be wrong. In fact, there are a number of aspects which make utilising a back-five extremely difficult, and we saw glimpses of that in Sunderland’s play on Saturday.
The key issue for me is the responsibility placed upon the three centre-backs. In a more conventional system communication between two centre-halves is a lot easier to maintain, and marking responsibilities are more cut and dry than when a third centre-back is present. On numerous occasions on Saturday there appeared to me to be an amount of confusion between O’Shea, Brown and Vergini, which perhaps resulted in the Black Cats playing too deep and allowing Spurs to manipulate the play in front of Sunderland’s penalty area.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of the 5-3-2 system in theory, but it’s an approach which tends to be much more successful in European leagues where games are contested at a lesser pace. We’ve seen Louis Van Gaal attempt to implement a similar system at Manchester United to limited success, and Hull are having a torrid time at present with Steve Bruce determined to utilise the same approach. In fact, the only example I can think of where a 5-3-2 has ever offered any real success to a club in the Premier League was when Wigan avoided relegation against the odds in 2011 – a turnaround in fortunes which was very much motivated by Roberto Martinez reverting to playing five at the back.
A massive plus point for Sunderland on Saturday was their potency in attacking areas. In a game in which Tottenham dominated, it’s fair to say that the Black Cats carved out the better goal-scoring opportunities, and on another day could have perhaps scored three times from open play alone.
Possibly the main advantage of playing a ‘Catenaccio’ influenced 5-3-2 system is that it is an excellent formation for coaches wishing to play a counter-attacking style of football – and this is something which we know resonates with Gus Poyet. Tottenham were often caught out committing too many bodies forward in order to break down Sunderland’s defence, and there was certainly the presence of danger from the Black Cats on the counter.
The arrival of Jermain Defoe will go hand-in-hand with this approach, and although his influence on the game on Saturday was sparse, his quality was there to see.
Defoe’s natural ability far surpasses any of the club’s current strikers, and this was noticeable in his movement and the quality of the few touches he had. Defoe won what was in my opinion a clear-cut penalty early on in the game, and the way he drove at defenders at pace with the ball at his feet was encouraging. The England international is a leader in the final third, and although he is not yet fully match-fit, it was obvious to me that he is still the classy player that left Spurs just under a year ago.
If Poyet persists with this particular system, it will also benefit Steven Fletcher. The Scotsman is not a natural lone-striker, but with a partner could be effective. The presence of Defoe will require special attention from opposition defences, which will in turn create space for Fletcher who with enough room and time for a shot can be clinical in front of goal.
What was really pleasing on Saturday was the fact that Sunderland were making better goal-scoring opportunities than we have perhaps seen all season, with a number of them falling inside the penalty area.
Attempts on goal versus Tottenham Hotspur
Attempts on goal versus Liverpool
It has often appeared to me this season that Sunderland fans are losing their patience with Poyet and his so called 'negative' football, but in my book he has done right to be cautious regarding any radical overhaul of a system which has seen the Black Cats record seven clean sheets and look a difficult team to beat.
Yes there has been a distinct lack of goals, but the arrival of Defoe and the formation fielded on Saturday is perhaps an indication that Poyet is aware that for the benefit of the club changes are needed, and personally I'm glad that he has shown an amount of composure and logic in his pursuit of finding the right balance.
The formation fielded at home to Burnley in a fortnight will tell us a lot about the aesthetics of Sunderland AFC for the remainder of this season, but in one respect a large pocket of Black Cats fans appear to have had their wishes granted, the return of the striker pairing is imminent.