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Round Pegs, Square Holes: Simon Grayson’s continued tactical ineptitude is costing Sunderland

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Simon Grayson has the players at his disposal for a successful championship campaign - if only the Yorkshire-man played to their strengths.

Bury v Sunderland - Carabao Cup First Round Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Some managers prefer playing to a specific system and subsequently sign and coach players to fit into their system - Sam Allardyce and Gus Poyet are two ex-Sunderland bosses who exemplify this perfectly. Meanwhile, others are more adaptable to the group of players are their disposal and mould their tactical approach around the strengths and weaknesses of the group they inherit. Rafael Benítez has done this superbly at our local neighbours up the road, and throughout his career has preferred differing systems and styles week-in, week-out.

The ‘square peg in a round hole’ age-old idiom was first coined developed in the 18th Century by Sydney Smith, who proclaimed the following;

If you choose to represent the various parts of life by holes upon a table, of different shapes,—some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong,—and the person acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, and a square person has squeezed himself into the round hole. The officer and the office, the doer and the thing done, seldom fit so exactly, that we can say they were almost made for each other.

In describing an artisan or individualist who was praised for being too far ahead of their time, and unable to fit into the niche of their contemporary society, Smith’s description was initially intended as a compliment. Over time, however, the idiomatic expression has developed into an insult, and in footballing terms, to describe how a player is being played out of position, or simply does not fit into the overall structure of the team.

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Grayson all season long has been deploying round pegs in square holes. He has had a full transfer window and pre-season to stamp his authority upon a decimated playing squad and shape it to his will - albeit without any substantial funds. During this time he has neither signed players who are key to his long-ball, direct style-of-play nor has he transformed his style tactically to fit the players in which Sunderland now possess. Unfathomably, he has chosen to implement a physical, pacey, direct style of play in a team which possess very few genuinely pacey players suited to a counter-attack, and doesn’t have a true target man at their disposal. In fact, against Queens Park Rangers on Saturday only one player was over six-foot-tall - John O’Shea.

Literally speaking, round plugs do in fact fit in square holes, but they will never be filled. Simon Grayson has week-in, week-out decided to employ a style which simply does not suit the players at his disposal, whether this is playing 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 or employing a five-at-the-back. On top of this, he even employs the other cardinal sin of team selection; choosing square pegs to fit into round holes. On numerous occasions he has played players completely out of position - chiefly our army of right-backs, who, incredulously, have all started together against Everton in the League Cup already this season and are continually deployed out of position. On top of this, he has utilised Aiden McGeady in a central role, George Honeyman at wing-back, Lewis Grabban out wide, and constantly plays two defensive midfielders who cannot play in a midfield two, in a midfield two.

Our goal on Saturday, an excellent piece of individual play from McGeady, came from the exact antithesis to the style of play to which Grayson has imposed upon his team this season. It was a free-flowing, intelligent move in which numerous players combined well before McGeady took over the ball on the edge of QPR’s box.

Just before this was arguably some of the most comically bad football I’ve seen, with numerous offending suspects misplacing two-three yard passes, unable to trap easy balls and falling over. The nature of the play leading up to our equaliser wasn’t too pretty nor clever, it was simply Sunderland playing football again, passing and moving in a fluid manner we haven’t seen at all this season. The crowd throughout the move even cheered sarcastically, such as the current mood of the Sunderland echo chamber right now.

We were warned by both Preston and Leeds fans upon the unveiling of Grayson that although he’s well-liked and he is a shrewd operator with small budgets, the Yorkshireman simply has tactical limitations. His limitations, however, are of a Moyesian level of fundamental tactical incompetence, at least last Moyes last season had a relative inkling of a strongest eleven (as well as the individual brilliance of Jordan Pickford and Jermain Defoe to call upon). We were warned, but Grayson’s constant tactical ineptitude is a worrying trend. Our current playing squad - bereft of a few positions of noticeable quality - are still more than good enough for a mid-table finish in the championship, but Simon Grayson has decided to push for a fast, direct and physical approach in a squad with limited fast, direct and physical players.

Not only is he utilising a system that does not fit our current playing squad, it is the polar opposite to the strengths that this squad quite clearly has. We have in abundance tricky, technically gifted players who could thrive in a system designed to actually play football at this level.

This squad is evidently not good enough to compete with the promotion race, and neither is our club budget in general, but surely the first sign of any manager wishing to progress and win is to play to the strengths of the players at your disposal. Yet, we currently can’t defend crosses into the box, are all over the place at set pieces, find it very difficult holding onto the ball for more than five passes and have zero attacking penetration or genuine danger aside from the odd moment of individual brilliance or when the opposing defence make a mistake.

The team barely even communicate with each other and constantly look like a group of eleven strangers playing together for the first time. Now, some are underperforming, while others clearly don’t care and a few exhibit both of this, but without a doubt, the majority of our problems on the pitch can only lie with the manager. Time and time again, Simon Grayson has us Sunderland fans scratching our heads at his starting eleven’s, mid-game substitutions, tactical approaches and haphazard attempts to change a game midway through, and time and time again he has failed to do so, and at this rate, our winless run is inevitable to merely carry on ahead of the three of the biggest games of the season unless he finally settles on his strongest eleven and the right tactical approach to suit them.