There was a hint of experimenting with it at Carlisle in the League Cup but Sunderland’s deadline day acquisitions have further added weight to the theory that Simon Grayson has been building towards launching a three-at-the-back formation on the Championship.
Whilst the Black Cats last minute swoops for Marc Wilson, Jonny Williams and Callum McManaman were borne out of a need to bring in additional quality for a pittance, their signings and the position in which each plays hint at an intended formation laid out something like this.
Fundamentally, that 3-4-2-1 formation appears to represent Sunderland’s most entertaining option in assembling a squad which generally lacks an abundance of pace, creativity and dare we say it, goals.
Grayson’s inability to land another striker on deadline day to supplement Lewis Grabban and James Vaughan has been widely panned as the main disappointment of an otherwise decent enough summer of business - all things considered.
But operating in a 3-4-2-1 enables Sunderland to overcome this shortcoming with a ‘panel’ of three front men weighing in with the goals.
The inside forwards and the front striker would be expected to contribute and would essentially be determined by committee - if you like - from Grabban, Vaughan, Watmore, Gooch, Williams, McGeady and Maja - all players who in theory possess the capability to fit into that trio of positions.
It is perhaps a system which can maximise goals without the associated cost of forking out for a twenty-a-season striker - and Ellis Short will have loved that.
But in all seriousness, the 3-4-2-1 or some subtle variation would maximise Lewis Grabban as a focal point by offering him plenty of support through the middle of the park. It also takes some pressure off Aiden McGeady, who so far this season has been roughly Sunderland’s sole creative outlet.
And you may have noticed a proud boast on safc.com in the club’s own assessment of its deadline day activity, that the three players signed last week have 19 career strikes between them. Big deal eh? But also a hint of additional reasons that each have been brought in - Simon Grayson needs goals from each department on the pitch.
Further benefits from a back three playing with wing-backs include maximising the use of Bryan Oviedo, who is now one of the few ‘Premier League class’ players remaining at the club.
The Costa Rican international hasn’t been utilised to his full potential in getting forward since his January arrival; but noting Oviedo’s performances on duty last weekend - against the USA in particular - the former Everton man looked a natural in a wing-back role.
On the other side, we’ve already heard doubts that new signing Callum McManaman could play in the wing-back position on the right from West Brom fans, despite turning out in that role with some success for Wigan earlier in his career. Simon Grayson may need to continue with Billy Jones in the absence of any other viable option for now.
The formation should also make up for Didier Ndong’s lack of creativity and deficiencies in picking key forward passes by surrounding the Gabon international with alternative sparks and allowing him to concentrate on breaking up opposition play. There is a risk however that Lee Cattermole’s legs would not be up to the task of doing the same in covering the space ahead of the defence.
Finally, the other cons with the system focus mainly around Sunderland’s defensive deficiencies which at times continue to blight the side’s ability to get results.
Communication in the Black Cats back line remains questionable and placing a reliance on Lamine Kone and two new faces - Browning and Wilson - to play in a coordinated, lockstep fashion for ninety minutes is currently fraught with danger.
Kone is on the road to restoring his reputation with a handful of solid performances so far in the Championship but communication has never been his strongest asset. Perhaps new boy Marc Wilson can bring this into the Sunderland defence.
All things considered, deadline day was about securing good players at good prices but from a tactical perspective, this is the formation Simon Grayson is surely going to go with once the key personnel to make it tick are fully fit.