It’s early days for Chris Coleman and his new-look Sunderland side, but recent displays have been encouraging to say the least.
Fans have that heady feeling of hope once more coursing through their veins thanks to the new manager’s simple yet effective changes, and will be desperate for more of the same going forward.
Last weekend saw the gaffer revert to a 3-5-2 formation favoured during his time as manager of Wales - a system that relies on its central midfield trio to control the game via pressure and precision in possession. The formation looked effective, and guided the Lads on to their first home victory in 364 days - much to the elation of the Wearside faithful.
However, with positive displays and a formation that seems to be a good fit for the side, one has to wonder which players will be entrusted with ensuring Coleman’s side continue on their upward trajectory.
Sunderland in the first-half against Fulham had a much slower, possession-based build-up play, aiming to get bodies up the pitch and overload Fulham's central defenders with crosses into the box. pic.twitter.com/IYWgzi3zHI— James Nickels (@JamesNickels) December 19, 2017
I thoroughly enjoyed fellow blogger James Nickels’ analysis of last weekend’s game in his regular feature, Cutting the Mustard. In particular, the above video was a fantastic addition to the article and highlights the issue now facing Coleman regarding who he chooses to deploy in our midfield.
At the weekend Darron Gibson was flanked by the youthful exuberance of Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman, with Coleman opting for their energy and desire to compliment Gibson’s experience and lack of natural athleticism.
The decision paid dividends, and as the above video shows, the midfield triumvirate were able to link together in fine fashion with a fluid, meaningful approach when in possession. Note the way in which Gibson moves into space, opening room for others while Gooch moves the ball forward with purpose rather than safely sideways or backwards. This movement and desire to move the ball into threatening positions enabled the third midfielder, George Honeyman, to burst forward between Fulham’s lines of midfield and defence and fashion an attack - something we haven’t really seen our midfielders do a great deal of this year.
Ultimately, the move ended with a chance that just missed the target, yet the desire, creativity and confidence was there for all to see. Our midfield was pulling the strings and enabling the full-backs to offer a threat out wide whilst also shielding the impressive back three.
However, with Didier Ndong and Lee Cattermole both now available in the coming games - after recovering from injury and suspension respectively - will either player be able to oust any of the current midfield that have performed so admirably in recent games? Do either of the aforementioned players deserve to be reinstated to the starting eleven anytime soon, or will they struggle to adapt to this new brand of football?
Didier Ndong got himself back on the pitch during the Fulham game, replacing Lynden Gooch for the final 25 minutes or so. The Gabonese international midfielder has been hit and miss this season, and has only just recovered from a knock to his knee which has kept him out in recent weeks.
Ndong is likely the player most fans would view as having the potential to replace one of our current midfield three, and when you analyse his play this year, you can see why.
Ndong’s energy and passion is there for all to see. He is athletic, brave and seemingly tireless, yet also has moments of quality that suggest he has a technical side to his game we have yet to fully witness.
The one complaint often made about Ndong is his lack of cutting edge, and his inability to be frequently effective in possession of the ball. However, his three assists so far this campaign outweigh Gibson, Honeyman and Gooch combined, showing the midfielder knows how to find a cutting pass. His pass completion could be improved and both Gibson and Honeyman are more effective when in possession of the ball.
Ultimately, Ndong certainly rivals the current midfield trio, and his athleticism is definitely something that will be crucial - especially across the busy festive period which will stretch Coleman’s bare squad to its maximum.
One thing that could potentially affect Ndong’s contribution is the upcoming transfer window. Several Premier League sides were linked to the former Lorient man last summer alongside multiple French clubs. Will the club cash in on an undoubtedly popular player? Potentially, though if he stays expect Coleman to spend serious time molding Ndong into the sort of midfielder required to flourish in this passing system.
Note: Squawka comparison of Cattermole, Honeyman, Gooch, Ndong, & Gibson found here.
Another player eager to find a way back into the starting line-up is the suspended Lee Cattermole - a player seriously struggling to find form this campaign.
Many fans have felt disappointed with Cattermole’s performances this season, expecting more from the tough-tackling midfielder. However, often deployed in a two man midfield, Catts has struggled with the pace of proceedings, unable to impact the game as much as he would be expected to.
Indeed, the former Wigan man’s statistics demonstrate his lackluster showings this campaign; something I’m certain a player like Cattermole will be desperate to rectify.
It’s clear to see that Dider Ndong has been far more effective both offensively and defensively, and that Cattermole has genuinely struggled to assert his domincance as a leading Championship midfielder. But is there any hope for Cattermole? Can Chris Coleman inspire the tenacious Teesider to a Gibson-esque revival?
Possibly... Though my suggestion as to how is a bit left-field.
I think Lee Cattermole could potentially deputise in the same position held by Marc Wilson last weekend. In a stopper role Cattermole would be tasked with pushing out from the back three and pressuring opposition offenses - something he’s built his game on in year’s gone by.
In terms of physicality, Cattermole certainly lacks the same stature as our current defensive trio, yet he stands at a respectable 5’10” and obviously wouldn’t be employed to man mark a tall, physical forward.
Cattermole could potentially be effective in this role against teams who struggle offensively. This position would limit his need to cover ground - something he’s struggled with since his hip operation - and would allow him to simplify his passing game, too.
It might be a bit of a wild notion, but unless Coleman can somehow transform Catts into an energetic midfielder with an eye for a key pass, then the fan-favourite will struggle to find a place in this current system. A switch to the three-man defensive system and a potential lack of funds might just force the situation, but could it succeed?