Team Selection - Better, but still baffling
Simon Grayson made four changes to the side which lost against Bristol City at the weekend, with Jason Steele, Billy Jones, Lamine Kone and Duncan Watmore making way for Robbin Ruiter, Adam Matthews, Marc Wilson and Callum McManaman, lining up in a 4-3-3 formation.
Bolton at home (without a win all season away scoring just one goal in the process) is not the game to play it cautious and go 4-3-3. That’s Leeds, or Cardiff, where we know from their form we’ll be under the cosh for much of the game.
Here, from the outset, Grayson should’ve started McNair alongside Ndong to provide genuine energy and ability in the middle, as well as physical prowess to oppose Karl Henry and Darren Pratley, whilst also pairing Watmore alongside Lewis Grabban up top to ensure he isn’t too isolated.
It is abundantly clear that Jason Steele’s confidence is shot to pieces, and despite making a few decent saves at the weekend - notably, one from a rasping Callum O’Dowda shot in the second half - he was partly culpable again for one of Bristol’s goals, and his inability to neither catch a shot nor claim a cross (or any single corner) continued to let the team down.
The change wasn’t necessarily vindicated, with Ruiter once again showing his weak wrists and poor shot-stopping ability for Sammy Ameobi’s opening goal.
That said, I just simply feel more at ease with the Dutchman in goal, and the last time he was recalled he recovered after a likewise shaky performance before being unnecessarily dropped. Although much better at the command of his area, choosing between these two is a Hobson’s choice - I wonder who signed them?
Billy Jones wasn’t in a match-day squad. With Adam Matthews playing we look much more balanced, largely due to his ability to a) pass the ball, and b) run without looking constipated.
Speaking of ethereal footballers, what did Darron Gibson do last night, barring a five-minute spell at the start of the second half? He was supposed to be playing defensive midfield, but doesn’t move to make himself available for a pass, can’t tackle nor intercept and slows the game down far too much.
Finally, Duncan Watmore. I can see why he didn’t play - to avoid playing three games in ten days after a long injury, not include him against a notoriously dirty and physical Bolton midfield, and so that we had a genuine impact sub whilst also giving Callum McManaman a game.
But, without Watmore, we don’t have a single player with genuine game-changing pace and as the first sixty minutes proved, we can’t do without him.
Verdict: In reality a mixed bag, but purely for not seeing Billy Jones at all in a Sunderland shirt, I’ll claim it was an improvement. Let’s hope it’s Darron Gibson dropped on Sunday.
Tactics - Déjà vu?
A favoured saying of mine is one that I first read in Stephen King’s novel Dreamcatcher:
Same sh*t, different day.
This is what we were constantly served up with Grayson’s absolute tactical ineptitude. The exact same direct approach was on show last night as last time out against Bristol City, with long-balls pumped high into the throat of an unconvincing target man battling giant central defenders.
There is nothing wrong with direct football, but for christ sake, play to the strengths of your attacking players every now and again.
As shown by our three goals, this is incisive, fast passages of play in which our more technically gifted players swap positions and link-up with each other before sending Lewis Grabban, Aiden McGeady, Bryan Oviedo et al in behind to score or assist.
We only did this three times last night, and I’m sure you can guess what the result of each of those attacks was.
Here though, I’d like to focus on Simon Grayson’s complete and utter inability to organise a defensive unit and keep a clean sheet.
It’s marred him throughout his managerial career and it has shaped his negative approach but, no matter what, he just can’t crack it. The individual quality of our defenders is far from the best in the league, but in a well-drilled and effective defensive system, they belie their position in the league table and goals conceded category.
Lamine Kone isn’t a smart player, nor is he a leader, but in the right unit with the correct partner and tutelage/training, he is a beast in the art of defending. Since Big Sam and Younes Kaboul left for England and Watford respectively, he’s been a shadow of his former self.
Grayson, throughout the whole of his Sunderland tenure, set out a side without any defensive shape nor organisation. Defending isn’t simply a job done by our defenders, they’re simply the last line of defence. Be it playing a form of 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, the two formations that clearly suit our side the most, a good defence starts from the top, through either organised pressing, designed not just to stop an opponent playing but also win the ball and set up a counter, or sitting deep as a compact unit with two rows of defence and midfield negating all room the opposition has to play the ball in the final third. Which system is used, depends upon the side and manager but Grayson implemented neither.
You can tell by the lack of team cohesion that he did not have them well-drilled, with wingers often not tracking back and opposition midfield players simply allowed to coast into our box unchallenged from our own midfield (See against Bolton, Bristol City, Brentford, Preston, Ipswich, Cardiff, Leeds, Derby and on, and on). In a system in which players have both clear instruction and faith in their manager, this simply doesn’t happen. We would merely sit off the ball and not pressurise at all, before having a middle-third orientated to mark neither the man nor the zone with more gaps than a toddler’s teeth. Just how often have we seen our defenders compact, level and moving together as a unit?
Every system must be tweaked in order to match your opponents style of play, but these are the basic facets of defending that Simon Grayson either does not implement or understand. Despite experiencing both a fifteen and nineteen-point season, this is by far and away the worst side defensively I have ever seen at the SoL. However, we can fix it. The players’ individual quality with a right system and rigorous training should see results change. We concede most goals due to basic defensive errors, and all too often the opposition didn’t defeat us under Grayson, but we did ourselves.
Take Atletico Madrid as a case study. Diego Simeone has continually improved his side’s defensive system and proved that a well-structured, either high intensity or deep compact unit can be the baseline to propel a good team to the same level as those truly filled with world-class talent. The three qualities vital to defending are concentration, communication and the ability to anticipate - reading the game. Simeone has been able to teach each of his players how to defend a 1v1 effectively, giving the side the qualitative superiority necessary to implement a man-orientated defensive system. All our new manager needs to do is make them mediocre and relatively solid at best in order to pull away from our current predicament.
Granted, as a defender, I wouldn’t be filled full of confidence by either Ruiter or Steele, but an organised defence that operates with a clear plan in mind would both lessen the number of shots on goal from dangerous areas and ease the pressure off either of these keepers to focus on improving their own game.
Verdict: Same sh*t, different day in attack. Embarrassing in defence. The next man in charge has a hell of a lot of work to do defensively to solve our inability to record a clean sheet, but with a settled back four and a fine-tuned defensive system, he can do it.
Substitutions - One pro-active, others too late
In the wake of the Bristol City game I said that Grayson just wasn’t pro-active enough when making substitutions but he had a change of tune last night, bringing on James Vaughan for Jonny Williams at half-time in an attempt to change the game.
At first, along with probably everyone else in the crowd, I lamented the substitution. But to Grayson’s credit, the sheer nature of having another striker opened up precious space for Grabban to capitalise upon. I just wish it was Duncan Watmore and not Vaughan that was brought on at half-time.
Watmore and Paddy McNair were both introduced too late in the game, especially the latter.
If they had been on the pitch five to ten minutes longer, I’d wager we would have won the game such was the transformation in our style of play when we finally had another central midfielder on the pitch aiding Didier Ndong.
McNair will revel at this level, as shown by his well-taken goal and generally impressive play, as well as his excellent performance down at Queens Park Rangers last season. He followed the ball, constantly re-positioned himself when finding space and provided a true box-to-box threat, something that Darron Gibson has never done since arriving here.
Although Grayson has been desperately unlucky with the injuries to the young pair both sustained long before he was even relevant on Wearside, tonight was the night he had to be ballsy, he had to go for it. His job was quite literally on the line. In picking neither and reverting to another negative approach, he rightfully lost his job just eleven minutes after the final whistle blew.
Verdict: Nice to see him being pro-active for a change, but once again he got the timing and order of the substitutions all wrong.
Post-match comments - None and gone
Sunderland neglected to send any representative to the post-match interview, and later during the press conference sent a Press Officer to announce the sacking of Simon Grayson and his assistant, Glynn Snodin. As such, here are Martin Bain’s comments included in the statement:
Simon and his team have worked tirelessly to achieve the best for the football club during their time here.
That’s a given.
While we hoped that Simon’s experience in the Football League would help us to a successful season, results have not been good enough for a club of this stature.
‘Club of this stature’, inferring that Grayson was perhaps just not big enough for the job? We’ve known this for some time now. Public acknowledgement of a mistake? This doesn’t look like a Sunderland statement whatsoever!
In order for us to improve upon our current position we believe a fundamental change is necessary.
Is ‘fundamental change’ referring to the change in management so ruthlessly carried out, or perhaps something bigger? Likely the former, but let’s wait and see.
Being unable to ponder over the defeat due to the swift nature of the dismissal, here’s an off-the-pitch analysis of Grayson’s time at the club.
At first, I desperately wanted Grayson to succeed due to his likeable nature early on in the job. His comments during pre-season and the opening few games were a breath of fresh air after David Moyes’ dour approach to all aspects of management, however, as time wore on it was self-evident the job was just far too big for the man and that these initially thought well-founded comments were just platitudes taken straight from the Martin Bain school of football propaganda.
From outright denigration of the fans to speaking nonsense and flaking on club-engineered platitudes, it was clear he was suffering from the immense pressure that comes part and parcel of life as a Sunderland manager. Due to this, he reneged from what seemed to be a refreshingly honest and open man with what seemed to be genuine knowledge of how to turn the club’s fortunes around, to an admirably continued honest and open manager suffering at the end of his tether.
One note on his dismissal while we’re at it. Although irrevocably the right decision, the ruthless nature of the announcement was slightly disappointing. It should’ve been more respectful for a man obviously trying and giving his all to change the club’s fortunes. It could be that not facing the press done him a favour, but this move will only have been the right option if his successor is likewise just as swiftly appointed. Yes, he was given a poor hand and managed to turn that into an unmitigated disaster, but it seemed somewhat too ruthless. But, that’s Martin Bain for you...
Verdict: Good luck in the future Simon, but here’s Grayson’s Anatomy signing out one last time. You never were quite the right man for the job, and let’s hope another pair who are likewise not the right men for their respective jobs, can find him.