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Opinion: Sunderland must stop focusing on defence and embrace an attacking identity

Whoever Sunderland’s next manager is, he must embrace the fact that we have so many decent attacking players if he is to succeed where so many others have failed.

Sunderland v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

One of the most frustrating aspects of Simon Grayson’s short-lived tenure on Wearside was his failure to take advantage of the talent he had at his disposal.

Especially after the summer transfer window shut, when Callum McManaman and Jonny Williams joined up with the Red and White Army.

Sunderland, whilst painfully lacking depth up front, have for the most part since September had the talent and the potential to produce an exciting dynamic forward line at Championship level.

Grayson’s persistence to concentrate on keeping players behind the ball and playing risk-averse football was utterly maddening.

List Sunderland’s best half dozen players and you’ll soon notice that almost all of them are attack-minded players.

Our most impressive new recruits, Aiden McGeady and Lewis Grabban, are at their best when probing in the opposition half.

Duncan Watmore has, at times, looked unplayable in England’s second tier since returning from injury. And, despite being inconsistent, young players George Honeyman and Lynden Gooch have both scored goals and have shown an ability to hurt teams at this level.

Similarly, the best is likely still to come from Williams and McManaman, players who’ve shown flashes of their talent and came to Sunderland with decent reputations and endorsements.

So whilst it is imperative Sunderland improve defensively, whoever next takes the hot-seat at the Stadium of Light should focus more efforts in playing to Sunderland’s strengths and unleashing a side who can take the game to their opponents.

Grayson’s refusal to let Sunderland press past the half-way line in the second half against Hull City cost the team what could have been a crucial win on the road.

His lack of trust in his players to get a second goal when on top in the first half against Sheffield Wednesday was an early warning sign to Lads fans that their head coach was perpetuating a fear of losing that would spread throughout the club.

So, instead of trying to coax clean sheets out of an aging backline that has struggled every week and arguably the worst collection of goalkeepers in the division, Sunderland must start focusing on blowing teams away and playing with an arrogance that betrays our league position.

McGeady, Ndong and others are certainly capable of this - they just need a coach who believes in them.

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

As much as it’s a cliché, Sunderland’s best form of defence is attacking, and now is the time to take risks as things can’t really get any worse.

Sunderland’s two primary options to partner Didier Ndong in midfield this season have been Lee Cattermole and Darron Gibson.

Neither player is mobile or physically fit enough to play that role any more, leaving an already sub-par back four with little to no protection.

This might improve with the younger and more energetic Paddy McNair returning to the starting lineup, but if the Northern Ireland international struggles to regain match fitness or plays poorly, Sunderland should experiment with different line-ups and more attack minded options.

What can’t be repeated is the embarrassing shambles that was our 1-0 defeat to Middlesbrough at the Riverside just a few weeks back.

Robbie Stockdale’s team selection was either an approach to solving our defensive issues, so misplaced that it bordered on parody, or a cry for help from somebody who desperately wants his employers to know he is not ready to become the manager this football club.

Either way, it was awful and helped make achieving a positive result in a difficult fixture, under difficult circumstances, near impossible. Paddy McNair in particular was a fish out of water at the top of midfield and looked like a player who had never played with his back to goal before.

He was unable to keep a hold of the ball and struggled to impact the game.

Didier Ndong was similarly wasted out wide. The Gabonese international did manage to harass and harry Middlesbrough defenders, and he proved to be a useful outlet at times.

However, when Ndong did get into the final third and came up against the Boro full backs one-on-one, he lacked the guile and close control of a pure winger and wasted chances. This was all the more frustrating considering Callum McManaman was sat on the bench, a player that excels in that situation.

On top of that, the two players occupying Ndong’s regular position - Lee Cattermole and Darron Gibson - were typically useless and struggled up against our more energetic opposition.

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

The Black Cats need to distance themselves from this aimless long ball, low-block identity that has haunted the club since David Moyes’s arrival last year.

The best way to do that is to hire a manager who will focus on creating goal scoring chances and dominating opposition, hopefully re-motivating a group of players that, for the most part, have played higher up the footballing pyramid than the Championship and that should be capable of at least matching 90% of the teams in this league.

Sunderland’s fate in the second tier rests heavily on getting the best out of Watmore, Grabban and McGeady and not being overly concerned with how many Jason Steele has thrown in at the other end.

Realistically Sunderland won’t be a good defensive team until January at the very earliest, when Marc Wilson and Tyias Browning are fully match fit and somebody else takes the infuriating Lamine Kone’s spot in the squad.

Wilson has been an international and Premier League regular and shouldn’t be written off after a poor start to life on Wearside, whilst Browning - for all his technical limitations - has been commanding at times and possesses great defensive instincts.

Sunderland v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Sunderland’s faint playoff chances at the start of the season evaporated when Ivory Coast international Kone stopped trying, when the weather got worse.

If Robin Ruiter can build upon his display at the Riverside and start getting down quicker at his near post, then maybe Sunderland’s goalkeeping conundrum will solve itself.

Also, if Paddy McNair really is the energetic box-to-box presence capable of excelling in the Championship like we all hope he can, then maybe Sunderland can be more resilient.

Ultimately - at least in the short term - moving towards safety depends on Sunderland’s ability to express themselves at the Stadium of Light.

You can only be so good defensively when John O’Shea is starting for you at centre half in 2017.

So please, Martin Bain, appoint a new manager who will get Sunderland fans excited to go to games again - the talent within the squad is there, they just need to be unleashed in the right way.

There’s no reason why our season should have been as miserable as it has been so far - it could still yet be salvaged, and it all starts with hiring positive, astute manager.

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