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Sunderland need to be more tactically flexible - what can Grayson do to change it up?

After two league defeats in which Sunderland conceded five goals, scored none and lost their grip in the middle, it’s clear that Simon Grayson’s side need some tactical refreshment. Just what approaches can he take, though?

Talking Tactics
Dan Abbott

Whilst Simon Grayson is clearly hamstrung by a lack of funds he needs in order to boost his ranks, that can’t be an excuse for poor performances. The reason Sunderland appointed Grayson was largely down to his ability to get the best out of what he has and the fact that he can work within a tight budget.

That’s not to say he won’t do that during his time here - the early signs are encouraging, despite the collapse to Barnsley, and even in the loss to Leeds United there were still a handful of positives to take.

At the moment though, the manager seems determined to persevere with a 4-4-2 formation which worked against Norwich City and looked functional against Derby County & Sheffield Wednesday. It’s a formation that certainly has a place in the Championship, especially when the midfield duo of Didier Ndong and Lee Cattermole are on top of their game, but Sunderland still need to work out some other ways of playing given the fact that they’re not keeping clean sheets and seem fairly predictable with their attacking approach.

The dire financial situation at the Stadium of Light means that we can’t spend our problems away - we have to accentuate our positives and disguise our weaknesses.

Just what can Grayson do, though?

Take the Sam Allardyce approach

When Big Sam first strode into Sunderland, our style was industrious, if uninspiring. Come the turn of the year, though, the Lads were playing quick, direct, tough tackling, hard grafting football. The kind of football that looks like it’s powered by coal and baccy, the kind of football I love.

Sunderland v Everton - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: we had the likes of Kirchhoff, Kaboul & M’Vila, we still had Kone & Khazri rather than the artist’s impressions of them we have now and we had an absolutely sensational scorer of superb strikes. Things always had a chance of clicking under the Gravy Master.

Hear me out though because I think Grayson can implement a Championship version of this.

I’m going to start in the middle, since the 4-3-3 under Allardyce was a system that heavily relied on the hard work of a good midfield trio. In this division, there aren’t many midfielders who possess the levels of quality that Lee Cattermole and Didier Ndong do - a player who has played his entire career in the Premier League, and a young talent who never seems to get tired.

Aside from Catts and Didier, Sunderland are hardly light on midfielders. Darron Gibson could be given a chance in a deeper role, allowing Ndong further opportunities to press higher up the pitch, which is one of his better qualities. The same goes for Cattermole, who can use his well-timed tackles to rob the opposition of possession in more threatening areas, meaning the attacking players can seize the lose ball.

You could even make this slightly more attacking by giving Lynden Gooch a go and playing Cattermole as the midfield anchor. It’s worth remembering that Lee Barry’s best ever form on Wearside came when he played very deep, when Gus Poyet was in charge and at Championship level, there wouldn’t be many better than him at screening a defence.

Sunderland v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Furthermore, a midfield three could really help solve Sunderland’s problems at full back. On the left, we all know how Brendan Galloway has struggled and Bryan Oviedo is only just coming back to full fitness. It hasn’t been exactly rosy on the right hand side either though, with Billy Jones in poor form and looking constantly exposed. Back in the halcyon days of Sam Allardyce, Sunderland had a similar issue with Patrick van Aanholt & DeAndre Yedlin but the work of Yann M’Vila meant that these flaws were eventually hidden. Given that Didier Ndong can cover so much ground, it makes total sense to give him the same responsibility of aiding the wide defenders, knowing full well that won’t hamper his ability to press higher up.

It doesn’t even necessarily have to be Ndong taking up that role but an extra man in midfield (be it Gibson, Gooch, a switch in position for Goerge Honeyman or even Paddy McNair when he is fully fit) could be a very effective way of nullifying the opposition and getting us on the way to keeping clean sheets.

In an attacking sense, Simon Grayson already has two of the three components available to him to emulate this system. There was a nice fluidity to the frontline when Sam Allardyce was utilising Wahbi Khazri, Fabio Borini and Jermain Defoe, as the wide men darted inside and their movement was difficult to predict.

It’s hard to remember the Borini who was hard working, committed and, well, just a decent player really, but it did happen. Given the work rate and skill of Lewis Grabban, using him as a narrow winger, who will get inside to support the central striker, should work well in terms of getting goals and off the ball work to open up space for others.

Bury v Sunderland - Carabao Cup First Round Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

In the Wahbi Khazri role, the more mercurial of the two, you could of course play Wahbi Khazri (for the time being at least) but it’s clear that Aiden McGeady fits into this position and is clearly the man more in favour at the moment. More skilful on the ball than Grabban, McGeady would be less using his running to create opportunities but would rather bamboozle a defender using time on the ball. We’d have two completely different styles of player on either wing but that diversity goes a good way to creating a potent and unpredictable offence.

This, of course, all relies on Sunderland signing another striker before the transfer deadline passes. To make this work they need a poacher, in the same way that they had Jermain Defoe gobbling up chances. Even so, it won’t always be the same exact eleven on the pitch, we’ll need to rotate and I think there’s one player Sunderland already have who could do quite well in this position, in these surroundings.

It will take Duncan Watmore a while to get back up to speed and many have suggested playing him out wide when he returns. Understandable enough given that’s where he’s played during the majority of his first team appearances, but that’s not his natural position. Watmore isn’t skilful enough to play wide on a regular basis, as he struggles to take players on, unless he can purely beat them for pace. Play him through the middle though, where he just has to focus on getting on the end of a move, rather than create it, and you’re looking at a more dangerous prospect.

Norwich City v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

It’s obvious that another striker is needed, someone quick and composed when it comes to finishing, but Grayson should at least make Watmore the deputy to that role, should he revert to a 4-3-3.

You don’t even have to totally exclude James Vaughan from this style of player either. Coming off the bench into this system gives us a Plan B and an alternative outlet if things aren’t going their way. It may not be clicking for Vaughan in front of goal right now, but he’s played well in a few games when it comes to hold up play and creating space for others, which can be further maximised by two wingers darting towards him to receive the ball and an extra man pushing on through the middle.

Going to 4-3-3 wouldn’t exactly be the most imaginative system but it’s certainly a formation that suits the players Sunderland already have, and just one signing could make it truly dangerous.

A system Grayson used last season

Grayson wasn’t afraid to mix things up and play a 3-5-2 formation when Preston manager, and it was even used recently when we took on Carlisle United in the League Cup. The options Sunderland have at centre half are limited and if Lamine Kone departs, it will mean the numbers aren’t there to experiment with this system very often but, for the time being, it could yield some rewards.

Sunderland v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

While the centre half pairing of Tyias Browning and the aforementioned Kone has looked a solid one, it can’t be ignored that they aren’t keeping clean sheets. Installing the experience of John O’Shea as the third man, playing him slightly deeper to save those creaking legs, could give the pair some much needed guidance. That’s no disrespect to either Browning or Kone - the former has looked exceptionally composed for a defender of a such a young age and Kone is still a quality player, despite his off the field issues with the club. Kone’s better runs of form have always came with a “talker” alongside him, someone to help him through the game.

As for the full backs, it’s a similar situation to if Sunderland opted for a 4-3-3, with the extra midfielder giving the likes of Jones and Oviedo some added protection, along with a newly added centre half. So there isn’t too much to go over here that we haven’t already covered, aside from the fact that the full backs would be the only source of width. This would be no problem for Oviedo - he’s naturally a wing back, and his best Sunderland performance came when he played in this very formation during the 4-0 win against Crystal Palace. You feel that even Brendan Galloway would be less exposed as a wing back, given his speed and the fact that a slightly narrower shape could hide his positional frailties.

Billy Jones is a curiosity in here though. That’s not to say Jones can’t contribute going forward, we’ve seen that he can, but it’s clearly not as much of a strength for him as it is for Oviedo. Therefore, it would make sense to set out this system in an asymmetrical fashion, with Oviedo pushing on from the left and Jones pretty much staying put. This means that the midfield have to only worry about covering one side of the defence, during any potential counter attacks, since the right hand side should be looking after itself. Think of the way Sunderland attacked when they used Victor Anichebe and Patrick van Aanholt to link up together, everything came from the left and the right took few risks.

Sunderland v Derby County - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Where Aiden McGeady would fit in would be interesting but remember, Grayson used this system at Preston - and it included the Republic of Ireland international. In this instance, you could give McGeady a free role to roam behind the front two. He could link up with Oviedo on the left, then join the midfield when an attack breaks down and one man has to cover at full back, he could simply stay central and look to penetrate through the middle or he could drift to the right and be the attacking threat on that side of the pitch.

With two up front, it gives Grayson the option to either go for a classic “big man, little man” such as Vaughan and another striker that we’re all praying Sunderland will sign. Even Duncan Watmore or Josh Maja could slot into it when they return from injury. Grayson is hardly spoiled for choice here but there’s certainly some potential to play with.

Reverting to 3-5-2 would definitely be a bigger transition for Sunderland and would have to be more well thought out than the simpler 4-3-3 but it’s a weapon that Grayson isn’t afraid to wield and one we could see being deployed eventually.


With a couple of days left of the transfer window, both of these systems could either fall into place or could be rendered almost impossible. To be fair, that’s more to do with Sunderland holding on to players rather than signing them, as a clinical finisher means they have a real chance of success by playing 4-3-3. If we’re lucky, an extra defender gives added depth and opens Simon Grayson’s options to the slightly more avant-garde 3-5-2, which then gives the manager even more scope to alter his system during a game.

It’s going to be a long slog of a season, so tactical flexibility from Grayson is absolutely crucial as he looks to get the most he can out of his team.

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