Team Selection - Enforced, but promising
Chris Coleman made five changes in his first game in charge of Sunderland, with Ty Browning, Darron Gibson, George Honeyman, Lynden Gooch and Callum McManaman coming in for Marc Wilson, Lee Cattermole, Paddy McNair, Jonny Williams and Duncan Watmore respectively.
Wilson, Williams and Watmore all came off injured in the preceding game at home to Millwall, with the latter two both requiring surgery and facing lengthy layoffs. Although both have unfortunate luck regarding injuries, I have to only pass on my sympathy for Watmore, who after seemingly finally turning a corner aggravated his ACL injury which had kept him out for 11 months, and looks set for another long-term layoff.
McNair likewise picked up an injury in the Millwall game, somewhat explaining his last 20 minutes in which he lost all urgency and mobility in the centre of the pitch, whilst Cattermole picked up his fifth booking of the season through a stupid and rash late challenge.
All-in-all we were missing ten members of the senior squad, with Jones, Kone and Maja all injured or recovering from recent injuries, Didier Ndong taking time off due to a family bereavement and Jack Rodwell nowhere to be seen.
Coleman lined the side up in an attacking 4-3-3 with Gooch and Honeyman flanking Darron Gibson, aimed at protecting his evident lack of mobility in the middle of the park. However, in his post-match conference the Welshman outright claimed that due to the aforementioned selection problems, he had to completely change all plans he had;
When I signed the contract, I had a formation, a way I wanted to play, in my head but it evaporated because of all the injuries.
Presumably this would be his favoured 3-4-3 formation implemented at Wales, but with just two fit senior, recognised central defenders and a host of changes necessary, this was the right call for Coleman. Even from the start it became a practice of damage limitation due to our opponents’ strength and lofty position and our own mounting injury problems and scant confidence.
Although most likely enforced, it was nevertheless refreshing to see so much youth on show, particularly in the first team, with eight players aged 23 or under, including five academy graduates.
Verdict: Very difficult to gauge long-term due to the nature of the changes. But the selection was just about perfect, undone by horrendous luck.
Tactics - Auspicious signs
Although still very early days, Coleman had been in charge for less than 48 hours before the Villa match kicked off and he only had a few training sessions with the squad, yet our approach and playing style was refreshing and auspicious for the future. Hopefully, long-gone are the days of straightforward, direct and ugly football.
From the very start, we had a game plan centred upon a cultured, technical passing style playing to the strengths of our players. These very early signs of progress can not be pinned down to Coleman’s effect on the team - aside from the obvious new-manager lift - but is more indicative that we simply shouldn’t have been playing a long-ball, direct style in the first place.
As I mentioned in the most recent Roker Rapport Podcast, I don’t have outward problems towards playing a more direct style if we have the players at our disposal in order to do so.
Our current squad just simply does not thrive within such a tactical approach. Likewise, we do not have enough pace throughout our side to play in behind.
Defensively, we looked much, much more organised as a cohesive unit. Long-gone are the days before 1992 wherein each position had a very specific demand upon a player; defenders defended and attackers attacked. Now, a successful defensive unit relies on a whole team defending as a unit, and constantly practising and perfecting a system. Under Grayson, Aiden McGeady rarely ever tracked back and defended deep. One moment of note that is prevalent in my mind from the defeat is Albert Adomah running into the box from half way and towards the by-line, only for McGeady to successfully and excellently slide in, win the ball and come away with possession.
This is not due to a ‘new lease of life’ under the new boss, but simply each player having instructed to them in advance clearly and effectively exactly what their role is in the team and having the discipline to do so.
Villa are a side sitting fourth in the league, five points off the automatic places and brimming with talent such as Adomah, Robert Snodgrass, Conor Hourihane et al. Yet, throughout the 90 minutes we did not see defenders outnumbered in the final third nor easily losing their man. We were undone not by individual mistakes but by sheer misfortune and dumb luck. Their first goal was scored by Albert Adomah at the back post in an area which was vacated by the missing presence of Adam Matthews, but was this due to a lack of effort, concentration or just plain poor defending? No. He was illegally barged off the ball by Christopher Samba in the build-up to the goal, and Snodgrass’ perfectly weighted ball to the back post directly took advantage of this. The second goal was a result of a massive deflection off an unfortunate Browning, diving at the ball, putting himself on the line as we all love to see, only for it to spin right into Robbin Ruiter’s top right-hand corner. A very Sunderland goal.
Coleman lamented this in his post-match interview, claiming;
The second goal was a deflection, I thought the first goal was a foul on Matthews. But no excuses - we're bottom of the league. When you're down there, these things happen.
His assessment is both precise and categorical. We really need a bit of luck to go our way to get out of this mess and pick up our first win since the second week of the season.
Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t exactly threaten Villa a lot, and our new-found philosophy was let down by the odd technical mishap and wayward pass; but this is irrevocably promising. But we were missing ten players, many of which would slot straight into the eleven.
One last note - I’d like to address the way the side reacted to going 2-0 down from unfortunate circumstances after such a momentous effort.
Previously, we would have wilted under the pressure and conceded three or maybe even four more. This is a new-found constitution, and will be most likely what Coleman found most pleasing.
Verdict: Auspicious and promising. I’d like to see what we can do after Coleman’s work really takes hold, with some first-team players back in the fold.
Substitutions - Proactive and youthful
Coleman made all three substitutions throughout the course of the game, and although two of the players introduced didn’t make much of an impact, I’m still relatively impressed by both the manner and nature of the changes.
He was proactive, making two changes by the 73rd minute - in the vast majority of games under Grayson, we’d see the same eleven tiring and lagging yet how often did he make a single change before the 75th?
None of these were enforced through injury, but all attempts to sway the game in our favour. Those taken off - Gooch, McManaman and Gibson - were all fatigued and clearly having little impact by the time each respective sub was made. Coleman changed it up, clearly seeing that Grabban was struggling physically against Samba and James Chester, and brought on James Vaughan, but vitally he did not instruct his players to change tactic and revert to hoofing it up.
We still worked the ball in to decent areas, tried to get in behind and played it on the deck. Vaughan’s sheer presence and cute knockdown to Grabban got us back into the game at a crucial juncture.
The other two replacements - Joel Asoro and Ethan Robson - had much less impact, but it is nice to see Coleman not afraid to blood youth. One can only presume that when fit, Josh Maja will be reintroduced to the side and would surely flourish in a more technical, faster short-passing game.
Although Asoro didn’t do much with the ball, his sheer presence and pace stretched the Villa defence and he asked questions of them no other player in the side previously attempted. His pace in behind may be a key as a late impact sub in stretching tiring defences - particularly as Watmore is likely facing an extended layoff.
Verdict: Above all, proactive. The introduction of Vaughan changed the flow of the game and almost got us a respectable draw.
Post-match Comments - Cathartic, honest & refreshing
I don't want to stand here and make any excuses because the last thing our boys need are excuses.
The cold hard facts are that we have come here with nine or 10 first-team players unavailable.
The boys that were on the pitch, whatever they had they gave and we just needed to play a little bit smarter in certain areas of the pitch.
We have got to be a little bit more trigger happy in the final third. We got into one or two positions where we should've shot and we didn't.
Sometimes that perfect moment never arises and you have just got to get through it.
Overall, I thought the boys worked their socks off, we worked yesterday for 20 minutes on a game plan so we haven't had much time together.
They tried to do what we asked and that is key for us moving forward.
We know everyone talks about wins and at the end of the day it is all about three points but what we need to do concentrate on performances.
Preparation, performance, preparation, performance - that's how you get better and that's how you turn the tide.
All-in-all, despite the situation we find ourselves in and the defeat, this is actually a relatively positive collection of post-match comments from Coleman. Long gone is the Moyes-esque forlorn rancour and antipathy, and likewise the baffling and glaringly facsimile comments from Grayson.
Coleman here is trying to propel a positive note, an idea of strength through adversity. This was the same throughout his Wales tenure, with similar early press conferences. After overcoming such adversity, this was morphed into a successful and somewhat effective PR campaign calling for everyone to be ‘#StrongerTogether’. I suppose this only works when the players evidently show it on the pitch, and they did on Tuesday.
Coleman oozes confidence and swagger, a key asset to his man-management skills, and throughout his post-match interviews and conference remained focused yet ambivalent. You can tell he’s been a manager of an international side for the past five years.
He’s straight up, honest and grounded. We don’t need platitudes, we don’t need obviously feigned praise after a defeat. We need realism, we need honesty, we deserve it. As a fan base we aren’t hard to please; string together some wins, put everything you can muster into the badge and the shirt, and be honest.
David Moyes was honest, but with an narcissistic, at times patronising tone that exuded the fact that he simply did not want to be at the club, and felt that we all owed it to him for simply being here. Grayson attempted to put on a veneer that everything was alright, before his team selection the very next week clearly showing he felt otherwise. Coleman, on the other hand has got his post-match comments spot on here.
Verdict: Above anything else, it was cathartic. These strength through adversary comments aren’t just vacuous platitudes, but genuine. I’d love to play for the bloke.