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Talking Tactics With Rory Fallow - End Of Season Special (Part One)

With the season now over, we're doing Talking Tactics a little bit differently this week. Rory looks back on the Sam Allardyce reign as a whole and what Sunderland did to ensure their survival. Here's Part one, which focuses on Big Sam's early days and a dark December.

Well, that's it. Another season over with, another relegation battle won.

Sam Allardyce rode into Wearside and took a team that had only taken three points from their first eight games, to survival with a game to spare. A remarkable achievement considering just how much work needed doing when Big Sam took the reigns at the Stadium of Light - just how did he do it, though?

In this end of season Talking Tactics, we look at the remodelling of the defence, accentuating players positive attributes so their weaknesses aren't exposed, the crucial January transfer window and more.

The Early Days

After conceding eighteen league goals before Sam Allardyce's arrival, it was clear what the new manager would need to prioritise if he was to steer away his new side from the drop zone. Results were mixed in Big Sam's early games but clean sheets were achieved against Newcastle United, Crystal Palace and Stoke City.

One of the main contributors to the defensive success was a newly found 3-5-2 formation with John O'Shea, Younes Kaboul and Sebastian Coates as the centre halves. The formation allowed little space for opposition attackers to work their way into the box and it meant attack minded full backs Patrick van Aanholt and, initially, Billy Jones could play to their strengths, knowing they'd be covered by the extra defenders. It also allowed Stephen Fletcher and Jermain Defoe to build up an attacking partnership which saw them both score away to Everton, whilst Defoe got the decisive goal against Crystal Palace.

The main issue with the 3-5-2 was how reliant it was on too many individuals, with one or two injuries meaning it had a domino effect on how the team could function. Sam Allardyce came to this realisation when first rolling out that line up, when the "3" was made up of Wes Brown, Billy Jones and Sebastian Coates, away at Everton.

After a 6-2 defeat, Allardyce knew that the formation would only work with players who could handle the full intensity of ninety minutes or were playing in their most comfortable positions. Due to the former reason, Wes Brown was dropped from the side and the latter meant Billy Jones was shifted back to his preferred position of right back.

Despite it's flaws, it was a system that, once it had found it's feet, yielded results for Sunderland. Four games in November saw a return of six points from a possible twelve, with two clean sheets. It was still early but The Lads were showing signs of progression under Allardyce. Then came December.

A (Not So) Merry Christmas

In the time that Big Sam was leading Sunderland, December was by far the darkest period of the season when a five game losing streak left them seven points from safety. In a spirited defeat to Arsenal, The Black Cats were still showing signs that they were improving under their new boss. The defeat at The Emirates saw Yann M'Vila put in another impressive display in the deep lying midfield role and Duncan Watmore was continuing to impress since Sam Allardyce had handed him a first start. It wasn't enough though and the Lads went down 3-1 but there was still plenty of positives to draw on, if the side could stay injury free.

The visit of inform Watford gave Sam Allardyce further evidence that - without the right defence, his newly found favoured system just wasn't going to work.

Watford had taken an early lead and, despite Sam Allardyce saying he wouldn't play 3-5-2 if the right players weren't all fit, the manager gave Billy Jones another chance at centre half due to the absence of Younes Kaboul. It proved to be a mistake, as Jack Rodwell replaced DeAndre Yedlin, altering things to more of a 4-3-3. Kaboul returned for the 3-1 defeat away to Chelsea but, after another injury to the Frenchman, Allardyce made certain that 3-5-2 would have to be put on the back burner.

A more traditional looking line up didn't change Sunderland's fortunes for the remainder of the month though, as they were easily picked off by a rampant Manchester City in a 4-1 defeat on Boxing Day.

It was a game of calamitous, clumsy and catastrophic defending from The Lads, as they conceded goals from switching off on set pieces and simply giving City too many opportunities to shoot on goal. The year was rounded off by a 1-0 home defeat to Liverpool, and the January transfer window now looked massive.

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