The formation remained the same as in the last few games as David Moyes stuck with the 4-2-3-1 that earned Sunderland a point against Liverpool. Again, it was a quite narrow system, with Sebastian Larsson cutting in from the left and Fabio Borini introducing himself from the opposite side. The main width was provided by the full backs - Javier Manquillo and Patrick van Aanholt - as a defensive midfield duo of Donald Love and Jack Rodwell would be on hand to provide cover.
Due to injuries and The African Cup Of Nations, it would have been understandable if Moyes decided to do what yer da’ always demands and “chucked the kids in” but the members of our Under 23s squad that were expected to play some part were confined to the bench. Club captain John O’Shea and goalkeeper Mika were the only senior subs as Joel Asoro, Josh Maja, Ethan Robson, George Honeyman and Elliot Embleton were handed the chance to be involved in first team action. However, their absence from the pitch spoke volumes.
As I said, if Moyes decided to start any of the youths, most supporters wouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, it’s what most expected. For none of the young quintuplets to even get a few minutes in the closing stages only added to the rumours that the manager has little faith in the current Under 23s squad. Burnley dominated in the last twenty minutes, with players such as Rodwell and Borini looking particularly fatigued and you could tell things needed changing. The fact that Moyes would rather keep on players who were treading water, rather than give the youngsters a chance tells us everything we need to know.
Unless the injury crisis worsens, don’t expect to see the likes of Asoro and Embleton getting a chance any time soon.
The only change Moyes did make was the total opposite of youth - John O’Shea, the oldest player on the books. It was a fair change though and an interesting tactical switch. Burnley were pumping balls into the box and another aerial presence was required to cope with the pressure. The 4-2-3-1 became more of a 3-4-2-1, with O’Shea joining Djilobodji and Denayer in defence, Van Aanholt and Manquillo continuing to provide width in a slightly more advanced position, whilst Rodwell and Love held their roles in the middle of the park. Sebastian Larsson left the field for O’Shea and it led to Sunderland playing with even less width from their front men, as Borini tucked in to join Adnan Januzaj in the mission to feed Jermain Defoe.
The switch did allow Sunderland to cope with the Burnley pressure more comfortably and since the opposition were beginning to bypass the midfield, it was a fair risk from Moyes to sacrifice a midfielder. It did lead to Jermain Defoe continuing to be isolated though and hopefully the system that ended the game will be used on “needs must” basis. At least until we have some more varied options who may be able to exploit the set up to greater effect.
If this game didn’t already have a pre season feel to it - due to a lack of intensity - then Sunderland’s constant experimenting from corners certainly gave you the feeling that you should be watching this game on a small provincial stadium in Portugal. The Black Cats won seven corners in the game and almost all of them followed the same pattern. Only three or four men would stay in the box (usually Defoe, Denayer and Rodwell, occasionally joined by Borini) and the corner was often played short with the aim of working it into the penalty area. It was interesting that Papy Djilobodji kept staying back on the half way line, opting not to get involved if the team weren’t looking to use his presence in the air to their advantage.
It seemed like a training ground idea that Moyes wanted to trial no matter what, given the pressures of the Premier League weren’t hampering the team on Saturday. It didn’t seem to click though and hopefully when Victor Anichebe returns, we’ll be looking to use our talented heading ability to profit from these set pieces.
Despite the fact the game fizzled out, there were still some positives to take for Sunderland. Jack Rodwell had another impressive outing and getting a full game under his belt will do him good. Whatever you think of Rodwell, a lack of options means that he’ll have to be used over the next few games and seeing him in confident mood with a few long range efforts was particularly pleasing. Even his midfield partner, Donald Love, gave a decent if unspectacular showing as he continues to put his poor start to the season behind him.
Seeing the poor start disappear further into the distance is what the rest of the team will have to continue doing, as they look to escape the bottom three and perhaps even begin to breed further confidence with a cup run.