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Talking Tactics: Breaking Down Sunderland's Dismal Display v Stoke

Sunderland easily surrendered this weekend to a Stoke side that hadn’t won all season. The search for our first league win continues and if Moyes' men keep playing like this, it isn’t going to come any time soon.

A Midfield Lacking Creativity & Drive

Paddy McNair and Jack Rodwell in the heart of the midfield. Do I really need to say any more?

You’re not going to get much from them going forward. I know options are limited through injuries right now but even young Lynden Gooch would have given us something resembling craft in the middle of the park. Both McNair and Rodwell seemed incapable of moving the ball quickly when Sunderland looked to put pressure on the Stoke City defence, looking slow and bereft of ideas. It halted any progress the team tried to make going forward as movement off the ball from the likes of Jermain Defoe, Wahbi Khazri and Duncan Watmore kept going unnoticed. I know this isn’t what either player specialises in, but you still expect much more than what we saw on Saturday.

I’d love to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that McNair and Rodwell are there to protect the defence, win the ball and let the attackers take care of the rest but they failed to do that. They won one tackle between them as Joe Allen won three, allowing Stoke to take control in the middle as the game went on. Neither of them tracked Allen for the opening goal either, allowing him a header inside the six yard box. So if they’re not winning tackles, not tracking runners and failing to supply the attackers, then what hope do we have?

I don’t want to totally absolve Didier Ndong of any blame, he was still part of a failing midfield after all. It’s hard to be as harsh on him though when he’s adapting to a new league and playing in a different midfield every week. Partnerships are vital in football and a young player in a new league will be wanting someone to guide him through these early games. In that midfield, he has no chance.

Khazri Continues To Prove A Point

Probably the only player to emerge from the game with any real credit was Wahbi Khazri. Just like in our previous match against West Brom, Khazri was a positive influence going forward and this time out, he looked like the only Sunderland player who could make anything happen. When you see him running with the ball at his feet, making incisive passes and showing good movement off the ball, it seriously makes you wonder why David Moyes has taken so long to finally put him in the starting line up. For a team that were so wasteful and ponderous in the final third, Khazri was the only ray of hope in an otherwise turgid attack.

If it wasn’t for a good block by Ryan Shawcross on Jermain Defoe’s shot, Khazri would have also had an assist to his name. A good ball over the top from Papy Djilobodji allowed Khazri to find Defoe with a well timed cross and it would have put Sunderland level not long after going behind. In that one move though, Khazri showed everything that the rest of his teammates are lacking. Great control and skill to get the ball under and make the pass, good composure to set Defoe up and excellent movement off the ball so the defence had someone to play out to. At present, I can’t think of another player in our team who would offer us that.

The Tunsian international won’t solve all of our problems, and our defence will probably see to it that his attacking play is all in vein, but he’s capable of causing problems against most Premier League teams.

Once Again, Too Many Shots From The Opposition & Not Enough From Us

Despite Khazri’s efforts, it wasn’t enough for Sunderland to ever really test Lee Grant. It’s a disgrace that Sunderland only managed one shot on target, from a Khazri free kick, against the leagues second worst defence. It’s boring now when people mention what we did under Sam Allardyce but in the second half of last season we would have a high amount of shots on goal, no matter who it was against. It meant we always had a goal in us, even if we just got a lucky deflected one. We made our own luck by sheer force of will.

To have a player like Jermain Defoe up front and not allow him to take advantage of a defence who can’t stop leaking goals and are low on confidence is absolutely criminal. That’s where we find ourselves now - we don’t even make a poor defence earn their victory. Aside from the aforementioned blocked shot from Defoe early in the first half, there was also a half chance for him which he put narrowly over the bar and another from a tight angle in the second. That’s not really a good enough supply to such a dangerous forward, who only had 16 touches all afternoon and only four of which came in the penalty area. For a team so overly reliant on one player, the least we could do is give him the ball.

If you have a solid defence that limits the oppositions openings, then less chances created for us wouldn’t be as much of a problem. Obviously though, that isn’t the case as Stoke had opportunity after opportunity and if they weren’t playing with the nerves of a team that hadn’t won all season, they would have scored another two or three goals. The home side had eighteen shots at goal, most of which were threatening. Apart from the two that went in, four were saved by Jordan Pickford, eight were blocked and five missed the target, including one that rattled the bar. This isn’t even a side that have scored freely - Stoke had scored less than Sunderland as we went into the game. Yet, they still found it all too easy to create chances.

We have a defence that changes week on week, be it down to injuries or lack of ability. John O’Shea may have given the defence some much needed reorganisation but there’s still no cohesion at the back. It’s no surprise, given how much it’s been tinkered with and clean sheets aren’t going to come any time soon with no working relationships being developed. It's a far cry from the back four that ended last season.

We Need Three At The Back

I'm not saying that changing to a three-man defence will hold back the tide completely, but it can’t do any harm. We have no wingers, so trying to use midfielders to provide width is pointless. Wahbi Khazri never looked interested in taking the ball wide and with good reason - he’s far more dangerous when going through the middle. Likewise for Duncan Watmore - despite his usual graft and made a couple of decent runs towards the Stoke defence, he was still playing in an unnatural position. The 3-5-2 formation would also go someway to solving our creative midfield problem, as you would be taking one of Jack Rodwell or Paddy McNair out and placing Khazri in a more suited area.

The defence isn’t working as a back four, despite how many times David Moyes alters the personnel. In fairness to the manager, he may well have stuck to the formation that ended the West Brom game had it not been for injuries to Jason Denayer and Lamine Kone. Three centre halves gives the side much needed cover when playing players like Papy Djilobodji and Denayer, who are greatly inexperienced when it comes to Premier League football. It would give you the hope that any mistakes a defender makes aren’t exposed, as the extra defender tidies up. Cover can also be provided in wide areas, something Javier Manquillo looks like he’s very much in need of right now after a game where Marko Arnautovic ran rings around him. Manquillo also failed to track Arnautovic’s run into the box for the first goal, meaning the Austrian had ample time to cross for Joe Allen. But with that cover provided in the middle, both full backs have license to provide the team with it’s width, something we know Patrick van Aanholt excels at and you’d hope an extra centre half would be there to pick up runs such as Arnautovic’s if the full backs are higher up the pitch.

With West Ham up next, a team littered with tricky attackers, the emphasis should very much be on keeping them out of the box. I’d have much more faith in us doing that with three central defenders and our midfielders tracking back than with the system we saw against Stoke. Playing on the counter will be important, so making sure Jermain Defoe isn’t easily marked will be better achieved should he have a strike partner and a player like Khazri playing in the hole. Hopefully at least one of Denayer or Kone are back to fitness in time for next week's trip to the London Stadium and we can try a system that is much better suited to the limited options we have.

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