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Why Sunderland need to sign attacking full-backs this summer ahead of our Championship campaign

Dan Parker discusses the growing importance of the marauding full-back in the modern game, and why Sunderland should concentrate on attacking from the flanks again next season.

Sunderland v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

I want us to go back to attacking from the flanks and using overlapping full-backs. I grew up watching marauding full-backs like Micky Gray and Julio Arca do everything in their power to affect the final third of the pitch, and create chances for our strikers. Hopefully a drop down to the Championship will herald a return to this direct, attacking style of football.

In the last few years we have messed around too much with our ‘footballing philosophy’ and ‘footballing identity’. From Gus Poyet’s patient possession game, to Paulo Di Canio’s blood-and-thunder approach, to David Moyes’ god-knows-what, we have changed our strategy more often than the Conservatives changed their manifesto. However, this never-ending change has only done us harm because it has prevented us from developing a solid tactical identity.

It is important that when the new manager comes in, he has a clear vision for the team and a clear approach for our style of football. And it needs to be a vision that is shared by everyone at the club - from the players to Ellis Short and everyone in-between. It needs to be bold, and it needs to be effective.

In my opinion, this vision and football philosophy should prioritise attacking full-backs, and we should go back to playing a similar way to how we played under Peter Reid – with a few subtle tweaks to bring the tactics up-to-date, of course.

Michael Gray
Gray relished an opportunity to push further up the field.

We are likely to keep hold of players like Cattermole, Ndong, Gibson, McNair, and Rodwell this summer. All of these central midfielders have one thing in common: they offer very little going forward. Defensive midfield is arguably the only area of the pitch we won’t need to strengthen this summer ahead of a season in the Championship – provided Pickford does end up leaving the club.

Therefore, it is highly likely that no matter who the manager is, we will be playing two holding midfielders next season to make use of our one and only area of strength and depth.

Even Big Sam played three holding midfielders when he was the manager here, but if we are to play with multiple holding midfield players this means that, in order to offer an attacking outlet, we need our full-backs to be attacking and adventurous. We will need our full-backs to provide creativity from wide areas just as they did under Big Sam in the last three months of the 2015/2016 season - a period of time that brought success and a sense of hope to the club.

Manchester United v Sunderland - Premier League
Van Aanholt tussles with fellow full-back Antonio Valencia
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Under Big Sam, we adopted a fluid 4-3-3 formation. When we had the ball both Kaboul and Koné would split to allow Kirchhoff or Cattermole more space to operate in from deep. This meant our full-backs could be more adventurous and affect the game from further up the pitch. If we lost possession in an advanced position, Kirchhoff or Cattermole provided the insurance policy as an auxiliary centre-back.

Sam Allardyce made no secret of the fact he wanted a right-back in a similar mould to Patrick Van Aanholt just before he left for the England job, so that the creativity from full-back positions could come from both sides of the pitch. DeAndre Yedlin offered a lot of pace yet very little guile while Billy Jones offers neither pace nor guile - though he does try bless his little heart.

Having two full-backs who can attack safe in the knowledge that there will be two holding midfielders “holding” (the clue is in the name) can be a potent weapon. Just look at the Rose/Walker or Davies/Tripper tandem from Spurs last season as evidence of this. This is also the blue-print Sam Allardyce successfully established at Crystal Palace to help them survive last season.

It is important to note at this point how different cultures have historically treated their full-backs. Not every country has traditionally seen the full-back as a defensive position. In Brazil for example, a full-back is also historically termed a ‘lateral’. This conveys that this player’s role is a wide one but not a defensive position. And Brazil is a good example to use when it comes to producing effective full-backs with Marcelo, Dani Alves, Cafu, and Roberto Carlos all being key players for the Seleção in recent years.

Hull City v Sunderland - Premier League
The lesser spotted, but undoubtedly majestic: white Cafu.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

But this deployment of attacking full-backs is not limited to South America. Spain have used Jordi Alba and Carvajal in tandem to great success recently, and Italy won the 2006 World Cup largely due to the exploits of Grosso and Zambrotta. The marauding full-back is becoming more and more important in the modern game as coaches look to solidify the middle of the park with holding midfield players in order for full-backs to bomb forwards - and Sunderland could certainly benefit from adopting a similar system.

This is also a style of football that the front-runner for the Sunderland job (at the time of writing) likes to play. The Bookies’ favourite for the Sunderland manager job, Derek McInnes, prefers to play a 4-2-3-1 formation with Aberdeen and exploit the flanks in order to engineer chances for lone frontman Adam Rooney. The two in the middle of the park are responsible for breaking up opposition attacks and distributing the ball as quickly as possible to the wingers and full-backs; with the majority of Aberdeen's attacking play coming from wide positions. In my opinion, this style of play is very similar to the tactics used by Peter Reid at Sunderland in the late 90’s and early 00’s - perhaps they might be worth a revisit?

I would welcome a return to this style of football in the Championship next season provided we buy the players to suit the system. In Bryan Oviedo, we have a player who would suit an attacking left-back berth (provided he can stay fit for more than half a season). However, aside from Oviedo, none of our full-backs offer enough attacking intent to make this tactic work. Tommy Robson, Billy Jones, and Donald Love are all defensive-minded full-backs and would struggle to offer an effective attacking outlet.

We cannot afford to shoe-horn these types of players into a system that relies on creativity from overlapping full-backs. Couple this with our strength in depth in the defensive midfield position and these are the two reasons why I think we should prioritise buying attacking full-backs this summer in an attempt at finding a system suited for success in the coming campaign.