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Sunderland Need To Play To Strengths To Survive

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The hopeful noises made by Sunderland’s support following the arrival of Sam Allardyce as manager were largely motivated by his reputation as a pragmatist.

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After the years of struggling for consistency, brought about by managers unwilling to compromise their formation or footballing philosophy despite lacking the players to pull either off, the hope was that Sam Allardyce would shape his team to play to the, admittedly limited, strengths that they have.

By and large what we have seen of Allardyce’s Sunderland so far has shown what Sunderland fans hoped for. The 3-5-2 formation deployed early in Allardyce’s reign may not have been a complete success but it acknowledged the limitations of Sunderland’s centre back options and successfully, albeit not 100% successfully, negated the lack of defensive awareness that our fullbacks continue to display.

However, with the addition of some much needed January signings it may be time for Allardyce to consider a change of formation and tactics once again. Despite the disappointing and undeserved result against Manchester City, there were positive signs and encouraging performances from Sunderland’s new signings.

Lamine Kone looks to be every bit the monster of a central defender that Sunderland have been craving since their re-arrival in the Premier League. Physically imposing, reasonably pacey and with a no nonsense attitude to defending. If you haven’t watched the video of the clash of titans between Kone and Yaya Toure, do yourself a favour and look it up.

Equally encouraging was the performance of Jan Kirchhoff. Moved into a defensive midfield role, he looked a different player to the walking calamity we saw against Spurs. Even putting aside his defensive contribution, Kirchhoff’s distribution from the back was impressive and he showed the kind of ability that justifies his appearances in last season’s Champions League.

Ideally, Kirchhoff will continue in this position and could fulfil a similar role to that of Xabi Alonso at Bayern, bringing the ball out from the back while simultaneously shielding the defence. This would also negate Sunderland’s tendency to sit off and allow players too much room in front of our box, a flaw which has cost Sunderland more than a few cheap goals in recent years.

Lastly, there was the performance of new attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri. Besides creating an opportunity for football journalists to highlight their lack of attention to detail, Kharzi is an intriguing signing for Sunderland.

Relatively young, a star turn at his previous club and a player seemingly tailor-made for English football, Khazri has all the potential to be a star of this Sunderland team. While he may not have set the world alight with his performance against City, he showed flashes of the skill and creativity that brought him to Sunderland’s attention and his deliveries from corners could provide an all new attacking option for us, especially with the giants Kone and Kirchhoff now in the side.

These three look to be important additions to a squad lacking genuine options and missing a consistent level of top-flight quality. However, with their arrival comes the opportunity to make the most of the rest of our squad. To do this, it seems like a 4-3-1-2 formation might best suit Sunderland. Defensively there is some room for leeway in terms of selection but Kone must surely be nailed on to start from now.

In midfield, the emergence of Kirchhoff as a classy, ball-playing defensive midfielder brings a whole new option for Allardyce. With Kirchhoff protecting the defence in an anchor role, this would allow Yann M’Vila to roam forward and make use of his ability to pick a pass as well as allowing Lee Cattermole or Seb Larsson to harry opposition midfielders, making full use of their stamina and tenacity.

Going forward, it would be nice to see Khazri given a run playing in an attacking midfield role behind a pair of strikers. The disclaimer from those in the know is that he is not one for tracking back, but with such a formidable central midfield trio behind him there should be little need. Rather, Khazri should be focused on creating opportunities in attack and trying to get the ball in an advanced position where he can do the most damage.

Perhaps most interestingly, this formation would allow Allardyce to field a strike partner for Jermain Defoe. It does not take a genius to see that Defoe is wasted as a lone striker, especially when he is as starved of service as he has been recently. In addition, the options available to Allardyce as Defoe’s partner present a significant amount of tactical flexibility.

Dame N’Doye provides a physical option allowing a long ball style, Duncan Watmore’s direct running could create space and opportunities for Defoe and Fabio Borini’s dogged determination would take much of the workload from Defoe, allowing him to focus on getting into the areas where his finishing ability can make a real difference.

Hopefully Allardyce will see the potential of such a formation and appreciate the versatility it offers him in terms of team selection and substitutions. If Sunderland can find a tactical option which makes best use of the players in their squad then there is no doubt that they have the quality to maintain their Premiership status.