3-5-2 could well be the way forward for Sunderland
For two consecutive games Chris Coleman has opted for a system similar to the one that gave him so much success as Wales manager, and it’s yielding instant results for Sunderland.
We’ve picked up a clean sheet away to the league’s best side, followed by a win over a Fulham team that have some excellent attacking players in their ranks. It can’t be understated just how remarkable that is, especially considering how defensively haphazard Sunderland were just a few weeks ago.
Tyias Browning looked like a titan in defence against Slavisa Jokanovic’s side, the highlight being a superb block to deny Tom Cairney a goal in the first half. Winning four aerial duels, Browning showed strength in the air and the visitors got very little joy when they took to playing long balls forward.
Alongside him, John O’Shea put in the kind of assured performance you would expect for a player of his age and experience, whilst Marc Wilson looked the most comfortable he has since arriving at the Stadium of Light in the summer.
Fulham were only allowed three shots on target on Saturday, and the three central defenders deserve a huge amount of credit for that.
In terms of style of play, the compact nature of the formation allowed Sunderland to remain comfortable in possession. The build up play was often patient, with someone always showing for the ball and looking to progress the team further up the field. If that wasn’t possible, there was very little panicking going on and the players simply looked to remain on the ball, starting again.
Despite our struggles, there is some quality within the Sunderland ranks at Chris Coleman’s disposal. A lot of the senior players in his squad have had long spells in the Premier League or are at least seasoned in the Championship. They’re good enough to play with the ball at their feet and they don’t need to resort to lumping it long to the head of James Vaughan.
It won’t always be the most exciting way of playing and there will be times when they do need to be more direct, but the platform Coleman is currently giving the team is the correct one.
The redemption of Darron Gibson continues under Coleman
After a nice cameo against Burton and a superb game against Wolves, Darron Gibson kept up his upward trajectory of performances with a fine showing at the weekend.
In what was a man of the match performance, the Republic of Ireland international was a fantastic influence on Coleman’s side, both defensively and offensively. The five interceptions that he made were more than any other player on the pitch, showing his ruthlessness in not letting Fulham play their way through the Sunderland midfield.
Not only was it strong reading of the game from Gibson in order to make these interceptions, but it’s testament to how good his positional play has been since Chris Coleman took over in the dugout.
With the more energetic legs of Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman alongside him, Gibson has been able to focus in putting himself in the right areas when Sunderland aren’t in possession.
You don’t want a player of his style to be chasing every ball - you want him fixed on where the ball is going to end up and how he can get a hold of it. With players such as Paddy McNair and Didier Ndong also waiting to get back into the side, there’s no reason for Gibson to take on the leg work either.
That’s not to call him a slouch though, far from it. After Adam Matthews, the blood-stained bonce and boots of Gibson touch the ball more than any other Sunderland player. The positions he was putting himself in (often dropping deep to act as an outlet) led him to building a lot of Sunderland attacks.
Early in the second half, a James Vaughan scissor-kicked effort began from Gibson playing a quick long ball to the chest of the striker, and the game’s only goal saw him heavily involved, when he nodded down to Maja, received the ball back and released Matthews down the left hand side.
There’s still a long way to go for Gibson if he’s to fully turn around his Wearside career and win over all of his doubters, but if he keeps up these kind of displays we’ll soon forget his less than stellar games.
The exuberance of youth
To say it was brave from Chris Coleman to replace two senior strikers (Grabban and Vaughan) with the inexperienced Joel Asoro and Josh Maja late in the second half would be an understatement. What a call it was, though - and it paid off magnificently.
Aside from adding some renewed energy and enthusiasm to the front line, both young forwards gave Sunderland a different dimension by using their unpredictability to frighten Fulham. Asoro instantly made an impact with his dribbling and made a nifty run down the right hand side, while Maja focused on dropping deep to give a stronger link between the midfield and attack.
You only have to look at the goal to see how well Maja did in his link up play. As mentioned earlier, Gibson was heavily involved in the build up to the goal but Maja’s presence in creating it also needs highlighting.
The run from deep that the debutant made after playing the ball back to Gibson meant a preoccupied Fulham defence weren’t quick enough to close down Adam Matthews. The extra space the full back had allowed him to get to the edge of the box and find Maja, whose turn and finish was of the kind of quality you would expect from a far more mature centre forward.
It wasn’t just upfront where the young‘uns showed their worth, though.
In the centre of midfield, George Honeyman cemented his place as a first team regular by giving his best Sunderland performance yet. He made three tackles, which shows how he put his energy to good use, and with 93% of his passes being successful it’s clear how effective he was in possession. Alongside Honeyman, Lynden Gooch positioned himself cleverly and made it awkward for Fulham to play through the centre of the park.
With the experience of Darron Gibson in between them it was a midfield that complimented each other nicely - Gooch and Honeyman did the majority of the pressing, whilst Gibson acted as the enforcer in behind them.