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Taking Stock: Reflecting on Sunderland’s draw with Millwall - the good, the bad and the Ruiter

A new broom has swept into the Stadium of Light but what did we learn from Robbie Stockdale’s final game in charge at the weekend?

Sunderland v Watford - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images

Robbie’s Team Selection - Attacking, effective, unfortunate

For the Millwall game, Robbie Stockdale made three changes from the horrendous side he put out for the Tees-Wear derby, with Duncan Watmore, Jonny Williams and Adam Matthews replacing Didier Ndong, Darron Gibson and Billy Jones respectively.

Stockdale announced in his pre-match press conference that Jones will be unavailable for selection for a month, after picking up an injury and being substituted early in the derby. Although enforced, I’m sure every Sunderland fan celebrated the news jovially. Matthews was one of our better performers against Millwall, and although the goal was extremely lucky, his attacking ability and intent forced the equaliser. Jones would simply have not been able to break beyond Millwall left-back James Meredith, nor would he probably have even attempted such a move.

Watmore’s exclusion last week was likewise enforced upon Stockdale, but seeing him lined him up alongside Williams and McGeady, the sheer attacking ability in our front four continues to show what Sunderland should be capable of.

Robert Stockdale

The injuries to both Williams and Watmore changed the game for us, and although substitute Callum McManaman impressed on the right, we clearly missed Watmore’s raw pace. These injuries and awful, awful mistakes by goalkeeper Robbin Ruiter simply cannot be held to Stockdale’s account of course.

Just a quick word on that. The first was horrendous goalkeeping, but everyone makes mistakes, right? But what the hell was he doing for the second? Although on the face of it seemingly not as bad, just four minutes after one glaring gaffe he faces an identical free-kick and has the gall to place himself in a position daring George Saville to whip the ball over the wall and low into his left-hand corner. Does he have amensia, or is he just an idiot? Naturally, Saville duly dispatched the free-kick to exactly the same-place. Give me strength.

Trouble is, Ruiter should keep his place purely because the only keeper in the division worse than Ruiter is Jason Steele.

Our caretaker manager deserves praise for setting out an attacking, effective lineup that gave us the best chance of avoiding the unwanted record of becoming the first team in the history of English league football to go without a win for 20 consecutive home games. But we didn’t.

With Didier Ndong unavailable due to a family bereavement and Ty Browning only just returning from injury, Stockdale selected our best available eleven brimming with attacking intent, His best-laid plans were undone by individual mistakes, poor refereeing and incredibly unfortunate luck.

One side note. The exclusion of Lynden Gooch from the matchday 18 is continually frustrating. He is a young, effective player as well as being a consummate professional and academy graduate, but why has he suddenly been omitted from any selection? It seems like Jack Rodwell is being included on the bench and excluded from actually playing week-in, week-out in an attempt to justify his ludicrous wage packet.

Verdict: Attacking lineup, with the best possible players playing in their most natural positions. If only Stockdale was as positive against Boro two weeks earlier.

Tactics - ‘The mixer’ no more

Charles Hughes was the Football Association’s director of coaching throughout the whole of the 80s and beyond. He was obsessed with his self-coined ‘position of maximum opportunity’ (POMO) which essentially involved hoofing the ball into what he also called ‘the mixer’ - the area between each goalpost running up to the penalty spot - and taking advantage of the chaos which ensued and stealing a scrappy goal. His obsession with POMO both dominated and defined English professional football until the late twentieth century, before being disbanded and now ridiculed.

Simon Grayson is likewise obsessed with this tactic, and always has been throughout his career and the after-effects of the aimless punt plan may take a little while to eradicate from this Sunderland side.

However, it is abundantly clear that Stockdale focused on working towards implementing a passing game during the international break, something that will please new boss Chris Coleman, known for a well-oiled passing style while Wales manager.

For the first time in what seems like an age, no longer did our players look to hoof the ball up towards Lewis Grabban’s head, nor did they play in a pedestrian, ponderous style.

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

Our full-backs and wingers linked up effectively for the majority of the game, with Cattermole and McNair largely ineffective in attack but nevertheless controlling much of the game in midfield and they provided a solid base to allow our full-backs to push forward. Judging on the flow of the game, it was evident our approach was to flood the wide areas and get in behind Millwall’s high-line. All four wide players were heavily involved going forward, doubling up on Meredith and Conor McLaughlin all game. One goal came from such a situation, and another should’ve followed suit.

The players at our disposal this season quite clearly struggled under the slow and purgative long-ball approach implemented by Grayson. Most of our goals have come in spite of the now ex-manager’s approach rather than as a direct result - strikes from either the odd pass-and-move sequence or genuine ability shining through above mediocrity.

Stockdale clearly instructed our players to a man-oriented pressing system off the ball, with Grabban, McManaman, McGeady and Honeyman all particularly effective at winning posession high up the pitch.

Lewis Grabban’s wrongly disallowed goal typified our style of play all game; McGeady won the ball back with an excellent tackle in the centre-circle, before laying it off to McManaman who cut into the half-space on the edge of the Millwall box. The Irishman then shifted wide to receive the ball back before swinging a decent cross into the area. Millwall cleared, but by this time the rest of the squad had their defence pinned back. McNair picked it up not far from the penalty box, but instead of simply looking to ‘get it in the mixer’, played it wide in behind the Millwall defence to Matthews. His excellent cross was well met low on the edge of the six-yard box by Grabban, who diverted the ball across Jordan Archer and into the far corner. However, referee Tim Robinson harshly (wrongly) penalised the striker for a foul on opposing full-back McLaughlin. A ludicrous decision.

Defensively, although still dodgy at times, we looked much more organised to a man. It was refreshing to see a back four moving up and down the pitch as a cohesive unit, holding a parallel line when Millwall had the ball in their own half. This is just one of numerous examples of when we defended as a team and not a collection of individuals. Millwall only really got in behind our defence on a few occasions, all due to a lack of communication and poor individual play - more than often from Wilson and O’Shea who were bullied by opposition striker Tom Elliott all game.

Verdict: Fast, flowing, attacking football. Defensive organisation and cohesion throughout the team. Playing to our players’ strengths. Promising.

Substitutions - Move along

All three substitutions made on Saturday were enforced and such I’ll keep this short and sweet. As aforementioned, both Williams and Watmore were forced off through injury before half-time, then, in the closing stages Marc Wilson likewise had to be subbed off due to a niggle.

Seeing Ty Browning back on the pitch was a welcome sight - the Everton-loanee has been our most consistent and impressive performer in central defence this season (slim pickings), and will bring back some much needed physicality to our currently feeble and lethargic central defensive partnership.

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

Stockdale replaced the two injured attackers like-for-like through Honeyman and McManaman. The latter was our biggest threat after his inclusion, and was very lively linking up with Matthews. Honeyman worked incredibly hard and was important in our pressing game, winning four tackles all high up the pitch and covering more ground than all but the two full-backs, McGeady and McNair despite playing just 74 minutes. However, he continues to plateau in form while in control of the ball. He seems to be one player who could benefit greatly from Chris Coleman’s insight, playing style and man-management ability.

Verdict: Subs enforced upon Stockdale, but he made the right calls in replacing them.

Post-Match Comments - Meh

Stockdale, pictured yesterday in discussions with Coleman, Kit Symons and Adrian Turner, will probably return to his role as first team coach, so likewise it doesn’t even matter what was said. Here’s his comments anyway;

I thought we deserved to win the game.

It was a bit scrappy at times, but I thought the players showed amazing grit and determination in difficult circumstances.

We had two players go off injured in the first half and the two goals we conceded were obviously soft to say the least.

This is the understatement on the century, but rightly so. He can’t be sending his players out to pasture when merely the caretaker.

We have got to get out of the habit of needing to score two goals to draw, but towards the end I thought there was only one team that was going to win it.

This is easily Coleman’s most pressing matter on the pitch after taking over.

I spoke after the Middlesbrough game and said we needed to do better in the big moments.

It is clear we need to cut those mistakes out.

Nobody means to make a mistake but unfortunately when you are in the position as a goalkeeper and you make a mistake usually the ball ends up in the back of the goal.

The players have given me everything, the staff around me – the ones people don’t see – have been absolutely fantastic.

We are disappointed to draw, I thought we should’ve had a penalty when Lewis was fouled late on.

Everyone and their dog by this point knew Coleman was taking over. Stockdale had naught to lose and performed admirably. In fact, this was a microcosm of our season; we CAN score goals, but just as many as we make needless, costly errors. He is a decent coach, that much is evident, and he’s done his future no favours here.

Verdict: Stockdale returns to his usual role with Coleman now ushered in to take charge, and I’m delighted. Ha’way the Lads.

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