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Kirchhoff Between The Lines

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Dan Parker dissects what our subtle change in formation under David Moyes means for Jan Kirchhoff.

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The higher you go on the football ladder, the more you will hear managers discuss the importance of "lines". Let’s be clear about this: the "lines" are not some mysterious, invisible life-force that we have only recently discovered.

They existed in football long before Mourinho caused a collective wet dream amongst the British Press in 2007. In an interview during his first stint as Chelsea boss, Mourinho discussed why it was crucial for attack-minded midfielders to play "between the lines". This is not rocket science, and many pseudo-intellectuals in football use the term "between the lines" to refer to what was previously called "the hole" in the 90s and, in Italy, the "trequartista".

Let’s look at it from a defensive point of view first. Traditionally - in England at least - defensive shape always meant two solid banks of four. One line for the back four, and one line for the midfield four in front of them. Managers will do all they can on the training pitch to ensure their team keeps a solid defensive shape when out of possession, shuffling the two units across to combat any attempts by the opposition to breach the lines. Teams can win major trophies based on sheer defensive organisation alone, as evidenced by Portugal in Euro 2016 and Leicester in last year’s Premier League.

Under Big Sam last season, we adopted a fluid 4-3-3 formation when in possession and a structured 4-1-4-1 when out of possession. When we had the ball, both Kaboul and Koné would split to allow Kirchhoff more space to operate in and dictate the tempo of the game from deep. This in turn allowed our full-backs to be more adventurous and affect the game from further up the pitch. The idea was to overload either flank and push our full-backs up toward the byline to cross (or shoot if you’re Patrick Van Aanholt). If we lost the ball in an advanced position, Kirchhoff provided the insurance policy as an auxiliary centre-back – a position he is familiar with.

When out of possession, he could become the anchor of Sunderland’s midfield and add depth to the midfield line, stifling the area in which the opposing team’s number ten would occupy. In short, he acted as the defensive point of our midfield triangle, and the two in front of him (usually M’Vila and Cattermole) would attempt to be box-to-box. What we gained in defensive organisation we lost in creativity (as anyone who witnessed the 0-0 draw at home to West Brom will testify).

The salient thing to note here is that Kirchhoff will have to adapt to Moyes’ favoured 4-2-3-1 formation - particularly when we don’t have the ball. Moyes tends to employ two sitting midfielders and a number ten in front of them – inverting Big Sam’s midfield triangle. Therefore, Kirchhoff will no longer perform the role of the "regista" or deep-lying playmaker.  Naturally, this means he won’t have as much time on the ball as he moves into more of an orthodox central midfield position under Moyes.

This isn’t to say we will have to sacrifice his raking through balls from deep to accommodate a number ten in the team (his ludicrous outside-of-the-boot forty yarder vs Arsenal springs to mind). Far from it. Anyone who has watched Kirchhoff over 90 minutes knows the man oozes pure class. He is one of those players who always look like they have time on the ball, even in a congested space. I have every confidence that he will form a formidable partnership with either M’Vila or Cattermole and dominate games from further up the pitch.

What Moyes’ 4-2-3-1 means for us as an attacking force is what excites me most about this subtle change in formation. Arguably for the first time since Sessegnon, we may field a genuine number ten at Sunderland. The focal point of our central midfield three will be a creative midfielder whose main job will be to create chances for the likes of Borini and Defoe. In my opinion, Januzaj is the best of the realistic options to play that role for us and if he can live up to his promise, he would be a fantastic signing.

If Moyes can foster a solid midfield partnership between Kirchoff and either M’Vila or Cattermole, it should allow us to become a more potent attacking force. It will mean we finally have space in the team for a "trequartista", someone in "the hole", a player "between the lines". Christ, call it whatever you want. I’m not yer da.