Who wanted to win football matches before Christmas anyway?
Certainly not Sunderland going on last night’s second-half "performance". It was an embarrassment and the defence – who looked so solid in the first half – fell apart like a wet paper bag after Romelu Lukaku’s opener.
Before the game, there had been rumblings of a return to 3-5-2. The signing of Jason Denayer on Transfer Deadline Day went a long way to validate those rumours. Particularly if you bear in mind the fact we already had Paddy McNair, John O’Shea and Jan Kirchhoff who can play centre-half.
However, I wasn’t sure. The last time we attempted this formation was against last night’s opponents in November 2015 and, safe to say, it didn’t go well. We conceded six and that was a generous reflection of our defensive performance at Goodison Park that day.
Yet, there is an argument to be made that we didn’t have the players to justify that formation (Seb Coates, Billy Jones, and a 36 year old Wes Brown were our centre-backs… which is just horrible). If you fast-forward nine months, our strength in depth at centre-half is one of the rare areas of the squad we can be happy with. That is one of the reasons I have come full circle and I now believe we should return to the 3-5-2 formation and play to the team’s strengths.
Firstly, let’s look at the defence. Kone and Djilibodji actually looked good in the first half yesterday. The problem is that they don’t seem to have built a partnership at all. Both went away for international duty so they didn’t have the international break to work on their communication. That showed in the fifteen minute horror spell after Lukaku’s first goal.
Supporters were rightly critical of Djilibodji for diving in too much but, in my opinion, Kone is just as culpable. He should have been yelling at his partner, demanding that he kept in line with him so that Lukaku didn’t have so much space. We were horribly exposed and Lukaku made both Kone and Djilibodji pay for this.
However, adding in Denayer as a third centre-back will make that central area much more solid. It means the three central defenders should be able to nullify the threat of the Lukaku-type lone striker much more easily. Most Premier League teams play with one central striker and this formation would allow one of our centre-backs to mark and the other two to cover.
Or, alternatively, O’Shea could play in the middle of the back three so that we can have a natural leader in the defence – something that is certainly missing in the current Kone/Djilibodji partnership. Or we could make our 3-5-2 formation even more continental and utilise Kirchhoff in the middle of the three centre-backs as he is comfortable playing there and could be used to bring the ball out of defence and start attacks from deep with his wide passing range. The options at centre-back in a 3-5-2 are plentiful.
This formation will also allow PvA and Manquillo to play as wing-backs and get further forward in attack. You could argue that PvA already does this, to the detriment of our defensive shape when we play a back four. However, as a wing-back, he would have more of a license to get forward and be a menace in the final third. This is definitely the strongest attribute of his game and it seems to be a square peg/square hole solution to me.
Using wing-backs will force our midfielders to be narrow to get the best out of Manquillo and PvA but, arguably, this is something we should be looking to do anyway. We don’t have any natural wingers in the squad. Players like Watmore, Borini, and Gooch are shoe-horned into those wide-roles and haven’t looked as comfortable playing there as they do in their natural positions. It will require us to play two combative central midfielders (something Moyes likes to do anyway) and in Kirchhoff, Cattermole, and Ndong (and maybe even Rodwell) we have good options there.
For the number ten role ahead of them, we can choose between Januzaj, Pienaar, Khazri, and Gooch. All four would offer competition in this role and would need to provide our creative spark from midfield. At the moment, I think this position is Pienaar’s to lose; he has been our most inventive player since arriving on a free.
The only slight issue with this formation is our lack of options upfront. We can bemoan our failure to capture a big-name striker this summer as much as we want; it won’t help us now. There are a number of options of players who can partner Defoe. I agree that none of the following inspire a lot of confidence but I would imagine that all would be stop-gaps until Borini returns from injury.
Anichebe could be used as a defensive forward and a battering ram. He is a striker in name only and nine goals in his last three seasons illustrates this. That is not to say he cannot be useful. If he can hold the ball up and bring Defoe into the game more, that would be a job well done. How many times have you seen the ball just aimlessly punted up at Defoe? Anichebe would at least provide a focal point and mean that Defoe doesn’t have to do everything himself.
Alternatively, we could play Januzaj as a withdrawn striker: a Trequartista if you will. Januzaj has all the technical ability in the world but the body shape of a nine year old girl. Maybe if we could get him away from the midfield battle, which he is never going to win, we would see the best of his dribbling ability. Another option is to play either Watmore or Asoro alongside Defoe. The concern here is that they are all similar players who like to play on the last shoulder – and I would always prefer to see Defoe go one-on-one with a goalkeeper than Duncan Watmore.
No-one is expecting anything from Spurs away. No sane person anyway. That’s why I would argue it is the perfect opportunity to trial the 3-5-2 formation. See if it works. See if it makes our players click. The following two games after Spurs in the Premier League are Palace and West Brom, both at home.
Those two games are crucial and, in my opinion, season-defining.