Team Selection - Turning-Point
Chris Coleman made three changes in terms of personnel to the side that lost 3-1 against Reading. Lynden Gooch, Donald Love and Marc Wilson replaced Callum McManaman, Bryan Ovideo and Aiden McGeady. However, it wasn’t the changes to personnel which were vital here, but our system.
A 3-4-3 system was Coleman’s favoured as Wales manager, and he adapted this to meet the individual strengths of his players - in a ‘box midfield’ with Gooch and George Honeyman slightly narrower and farther advanced to protect Lee Cattermole and Darron Gibson. Finally, he had a chance to utilise this as Sunderland boss - and the earlier the better. The loss against Reading and excellent point away to league leaders Wolves, who average over two goals scored per game this season, could prove to be a turning point for the club in the long-term.
I don’t want to claim the 0-0 draw will rocket us up the table, or signal a huge winning streak, but with a formed identity and system of which Coleman is an expert in both implementing and coaching, I’d expect we may look back to these twin results as the real start to his epoch at the club.
Interestingly, just a day after the victory our U23 side faced Liverpool at the Stadium of Light and lined-up in the same 3-4-3 formation, for the first time this season. Clearly, this has been enforced upon manager Elliot Dickman by Coleman, who similarly told the Wales youth bosses to lineup in the formation to ease the transition into the first-team. This indicates both where Coleman’s long-term vision lies, but also, for the first time since Big Sam left, shows we have an identity at the club. Players who would be heavily involved in the first-team; Joel Asoro, Elliot Embleton, Ethan Robson (who have all already seen minutes in the league) and Josh Maja, Thomas Beadling and Rees Greenwood all started the game in this system, indicating all may play some part in the future.
The selection was vindicated, with Sunderland becoming the first team to stop the league leaders scoring at home this season (and at all since Huddersfield in March). Some have claimed the performance was disappointing going forwards, and expected much more attacking intent. Wolves manager Nuno Espírito Santo himself claimed after the game:
I am disappointed because this is a not a victory, I'm not frustrated. This is part of football.
Victories are hard to achieve, We work hard to achieve that and the boys worked hard.
There was only one team on the pitch trying to achieve three points and that was us.
Games like this will happen again and we have to find solutions.
One of the things we have to contend with is nine men behind the ball not wanting to play football.
Santo here is astute in his management. He is acutely aware this is the first time his side have failed to score at home, and takes the attention away completely from his sides’ poor performance. If he was to criticise his side too much, it could prove a problem long-term, but in blaming Sunderland he has kept both the players and fans’ mid-season nerves at bay.
Chris Coleman set his side up to defend, but in no way is this “not playing football.” Only one player is ever on the ball at one time, and to decry that the work off the ball is “anti-football” is merely to simplify the game, and the tactically aware Santo recognises this entirely. Coleman outwitted Santo, and we may have even stole a victory from a frustrated Wolves had Lee Cattermole not completed his total regression to the volatile, erratic and ill-disciplined player he once was.
In our most recent Roker Rapport podcast, I lamented over the nature of Catts’ two yellows; accrued within 60 seconds of each other, for exactly the same offence. It is a complete regression from the composed, intelligent payer who starred under Gustavo Poyet, Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce into his ‘older-self’, an ill-disciplined and worryingly erratic midfielder with an array of on-the-pitch troubles borne out of frustration.
Clearly this has irked Cattermole, a man paying the price physically for years of injury problems, repeated injections and a decade of his robust playing style. For now, it is clear he needs some time out of the side in order to recover; to be away from the limelight and to begin the process of adapting his playing style. No longer can he cover every blade of grass and play for every single tackle. He need to use his obvious love and admiration for the club and channel it not through anger or irrationality, but calmness.
A call to the man he replaced at the base of Sunderland’s midfield - Dwight Yorke - about how to do so may be a good start.
Verdict: What could prove to be a true turning point on the pitch. A point away to such a talented side in a completely different system must not be underestimated.
Tactics - Defensive Solidity
Just imagine if we could've grabbed that goal. It’d be the perfect away performance, and arguably the best of any side in England’s second tier this season. Our attacking intent was rightfully almost nonexistent, so here I’ll profile our defensive work at Molineux, and the differences from what we’ve seen previously this season.
Wolves aren’t top of the table because of luck or virtue of a generally poor league - they are a class above any other team in the division. Rúben Neves is not just the best player in the whole league, but one whose position at the club actually belies his huge talents; just like Aron Mooy last season. Neves should irrevocably be playing Champions League football along with Diogo Jota and Léo Bonatini. Numerous others in the side (Ivan Cavaleiro, Barry Douglas, Romain Saïss, Willy Boly, Alfred N’Diaye and Hélder Costa) are all Premier League standard players.
Wolves struggled somewhat at Birmingham in midweek, but this was an away derby crucially without Neves, who returned from suspension for the game at the Molineux.
As such, Coleman set his side up in a much more defensive, flat 5-4-1 as opposed to the 3-4-3 Wales and Wolves fans are both so accustomed to. Gooch and George Honeyman lined up slightly more advanced and narrower than expected, tasked with the key roles of both pressurising the Wolves midfield duo and defence in order to make up for the lack of mobility and pressure from Catts, Darron Gibson and Lewis Grabban while also moving out wide and sheltering Donald Love and Adam Matthews from Wolves’ marauding fullbacks.
Defensively, the players were superb to a man. Except for Cattermole’s brief moment of insanity just after the hour mark, each man dutifully carried out the job required of them and were a credit to the side. This intensity, effort, organisation and above all, result, is exactly what we as fans implore from those who pull on the shirt every week. The players performances throughout the side, led by Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman, who left no ground uncovered, all the way to the monumental Ty Browning in defence to Robbin Ruiter in goal.
This defensive resolve and organisation is what Wales themselves became known for during Coleman’s reign, and a similar system was on show on Saturday afternoon. His defensive regimen is based around limiting the number of chances the opposition can create, with a flexible system of fluid movement and defensive transitioning.
Initially, our midfield was tasked with stopping the vertical balls coming from Wolves’ two respective central midfielders, and limiting their influence. Gooch and Honeyman would thus tightly mark the spaces between the central midfielders and wing-backs, able to move both towards either depending upon how the ball was played out by the defence.
Cattermole and Gibson were themselves tasked with sitting slightly off these pair, only to then step up when the midfielder received the ball at feet, thus enabling them to either pressure the receiver of the ball or intercept their short passes.
Love and Matthews on either side likewise had to show similar discipline in sticking close to Barry Douglas and Matt Doherty, pushing high in order to cease their advance up field. Love has taken some stick for his slightly ineffective game, but his energy and stamina as well as astute ability to follow instructions allowed him to nullify Wolves’ biggest wide threat and the young Scot deserves much praise for his role in the draw. Douglas has registered the most assists in the league this season, proving his threat.
However, once Wolves did push forwards into the final third, the whole defensive transition would shift into a much deeper, more compact role. Honeyman and Gooch would push wide, parallel to the wing-backs and double-up on whoever held the ball out wide. Cattermole and Gibson likewise dropped deeper, constantly keeping an eye upon Wolves’ inside forwards (Jota and Cavaleiro), and out wide. Grabban was tasked with closing up the gaps between the defenders and sit in passing lanes, presumably ready to counter fast. It is a tactic we had seen so often from Coleman during his time as Wales boss, but it is the transitions between these differing defensive shapes which was so impressive.
It is abundantly clear that Coleman, a former defender himself, knows the back three/five formation inside-out, and has worked with it all week. My opinion on Simon Grayson’s defensive and tactical work with the side has been well documented on the site in the past (in short, there wasn’t any), so this is a breath of fresh air.
Players need instruction - they need a manager. All of the best, most successful sides have the best, most successful managers and vice versa. It is no coincidence that Pep Guardiola has seen unprecedented results at Manchester City, just by the amount of footballing intelligence the man holds as well as one-to-one and full-team work on the training pitch.
Our defensive players’ strengths lie in a back five. That much is clear - John O’Shea is protected and able to lead without the pressure of covering more ground upon his 36-year-old body, and Ty Browning as a man who can play both in the middle and at right-back is a perfect player to have on the side of defence, with his pace, physicality and footballing intelligence vital to our side. The only time Grayson attempted to do so was a simple case of matching up Sheffield United after a week of preparing to play a back four. Thus, with George Honeyman criminally out of position at wing-back, we duly lost and the back-five was abandoned with as much haste as it was implemented. What a breath of fresh air Coleman is, eh?
A few final notes; firstly on our wing-backs - this is the most important position in a back five. Look at the effect of Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso, Victor Moses and David Zappacosta. None of the trio are what you’d call superstars but are incredibly efficient playing as wing-backs. I can’t wait to see Bryan Oviedo and Matthews feature in tandem in their strongest positions.
Finally, last week I chastised some of our older, “seasoned professionals” and questioned both their commitment and ability. Here, John O’Shea and Darron Gibson’s influence was colossal, especially after Cattermole’s red. They sat in two banks of three, one of which marshalled our penalty area superbly while the other harried, harassed and ran themselves into the ground. O’Shea was also excellent defensively, registering nine clearances, three blocks, three tackles and one interception, winning six of seven duels (both aerial and on the floor). He led the defence, allowing Browning to deal with Wolves’ physical threat and Wilson to play the ball out of defence with 27 passes at 88% completion.
Verdict: Chris Coleman has evidently worked with these players all week, and after just that short time we’ve already become the first team in the league to stop Wolves scoring at home. Let’s now find out how to do this, and get that all-important goal.
Substitutions - Good
This was not a game that required an early substitution to change the pace or flow. It was all about consistency, both in-game and long-term. It was all about getting the players working together under the greatest of adversity and proving to both the fans, and the wider footballing world, that we can turn this rot around.
As such, Coleman didn’t make a change until the 80th minute - the first enforced with Love picking up an injury and being replaced by Brendan Galloway, a like-for-like at wing-back. Five minutes later, James Vaughan replaced Lewis Grabban - who worked hard but was largely anonymous after the sending off - in an evident ploy to both waste time and go long for the jugular; a fine tactic when 0-0 away to the league leaders with five minutes left, Simon Grayson. The third was another time-wasting exercise, which allowed the travelling fans to appreciate Roker Report Man of the Match Lynden Gooch for his excellent performance while also giving Elliot Embleton his Sunderland debut.
Embleton came on in the 90th minute with a basic remit to get a taste of senior football and follow instructions, but it is nevertheless a huge indicator of Coleman’s willingness to trust youngsters and play them when necessary. This is a key juncture for the academy, with numerous graduates looking to play key roles for the first-team in the future - Honeyman, Gooch, Asoro, Maja, Embleton and others - due to both their own huge promise and the club’s injury crisis.
Coleman got his subs spot on once again. He tried to go for the game while also ensuring we’d see the clean sheet out - once again proving to his academy players that success at the lower-age levels will result in playing time for the first-team. Toulon Tournament winner Embleton has proven this, and at just 18 he’s one of the brightest prospects at the academy - expect him to be either fast-tracked into the senior set-up like Joel Asoro and Josh Maja or be sent out on loan to a fellow Football League side.
The inclusion of Vaughan, however, is the most interesting. On the face of it, it seems like he went for the game late-on, with the former-Bury man introduced to become an outlet up top for us to build upon, but the sub was actually intended to ensure the draw, and rightly so. Coleman himself described Vaughan as an old-school street player after the Burton victory, and we needed this fight, drive, determination and sheer work rate late on.
He actually lined-up in a very deep role, due to the nature of his substitution. He played essentially within his own half for the whole time he was on the pitch, forming a diamond with Gooch, Honeyman and Gibson. This is specifically designed to overload the middle third of the pitch and cease the dangerous vertical passes from the Wolves midfield and defence. It worked perfectly. For the last ten minutes, Wolves were forced wide or to shoot from distance as they simply couldn’t break down our highly organised team-shape.
Coleman got the three of his subs spot-on, and although fatigue had set in, it is clear why he did not want to make a change too early and disrupt the rhythm of his players. It seems the Welshman was testing his own defence just as much as the prolific Wolves strike force.
Verdict: You can’t complain after such a fantastic team performance and result - Coleman rightfully kept it the same until fatigue set in, and both meticulously managed to look like he was going for the win while actually ensuring the draw.
Post-Match Comments - Unifying
I am really proud of them today because we have shown a fantastic team spirit.
That's what we needed today to get through that.
Everyone of them produced a big performance and stayed strong.
They stayed together and for me this clean sheet here is just as good as three points at the end of the day.
They were brilliant, I can't praise them enough.
Our fans made the journey and were brilliant once again. They were noisy and stayed with us because I think they sensed we needed them.
But yeah it was marvellous, brilliant for Sunderland today and we need these performances and these moments for a bit of heart and confidence.
We need to win 1-0 at home. I don't care if it's ugly; if it's swashbuckling football, fantastic. I don't care how it comes.
We need that platform. We are not going to win games 5-3, 4-3 every week. Wolves may do with the wealth of riches they've spent on fantastic players at this level.
We may have to win 1-0 and to do that you are going to need to keep a clean sheet. All I care about is getting results and making sure we get away from the relegation zone.
Coleman’s comments are unifying. He hasn’t focused upon Cattermole’s red, nor has he even mentioned it, and rightly so. He can have a word with him in private and behind closed doors, as it should be dealt with. Paolo Di Canio’s complete and utter attack against Ji Dong-won in his post-match press conference after a 2-0 loss away to Crystal Palace in 2013 springs to mind. He ousted a player publicly, and we all know what happened to him.
This club and this group of players needs a unifying force in Chris Coleman. A calm head who will bring the players and fans together, and that’s exactly why he mentioned the two in his interview. It’s not about him, it never is. Such is the man’s humility. However, this massive point was all thanks to Chris, and was excellently implemented by his side.
Verdict: Unifying comments are exactly what we need after a victory. He’s learned just as much from his side today as he did from the Reading loss, and the two games combined may just turn our season around long-term.