Midfield - a long-term problem
Whether it was Steve Bruce solving it with the unlikely pairing of Cana and Cattermole then destroying it with Gardner and Vaughan, at all levels of the game getting a midfield to work has been a problem for many a manager.
If we look back over the last few years at Sunderland, only Sam Allardyce has been able to find a midfield that worked - and that was just for a short time. In those 15 games or so with the height and calmness of Kirchhoff, the bite and energy of Cattermole and the passing and physicality of M’Vila, big Sam managed to solve a puzzle.
Gustavo Poyet nearly got there and had some great performances out of Cattermole, Larsson and Ki, but rarely was it together, rarely was it cohesive.
We can even go back to the Armstrong, Bracewell and Owers dilemma. Sometimes Armstrong played left, with Owers central, or Owers played right and Armstrong central. The balance was never there - there should have been a solution, but there never was at that time.
What makes a midfield work?
Balance - balance, and players who compliment each other.
For example Lee Clark and Kevin Ball, or Alex Rae and Gavin McCann, whose fine partnership then forced Stefan Schwarz to play out on the left.
A balanced midfield is the trickiest part of putting a team together. How do you accommodate Craig Gardner, Seb Larsson and David Vaughan in the same team? You can’t. You would think that the heavy industry of Lee Cattermole and Lorik Cana wouldn’t work, but it did for a time.
So now we have Dylan McGeough - a small, nippy player, who likes to sit and cover, making short passes. Lee Cattermole still has no pace but has rediscovered his mojo for the game, charging around almost box to box. There’s also Max Power who aptly has power in his legs and in his boots, plus captain George Honeyman who is full of work-rate, running and energy.
Each of these players, in my opinion, should be good enough to play in the Championship. So, this area of the field should in theory be our strength, right?
Well the evidence of what we have seen so far indicates something different to that.
How do we fix it, then?
This is Jack Ross’ biggest problem. We have a poor record from set pieces - blame is often attached to the defence, but it only tells part of the story. Set pieces come from pressure, pressure comes from a lack of control, and often a lack of control comes from a weakness in midfield.
Every one of the teams in our league would snap our hands off for any of our midfield players. So, what is the problem? For me its all about balance - and somehow Ross needs to get the balance right.
Can McGeough play with Cattermole? Are Power and Cattermole too similar? Where is the height? Where is the pace? Would a midfield trio work or should we have two sitting and one advanced, or two central one sits one goes? All these equations, what will work? What is the solution?
Ask ten people and you will get ten different answers, and therein lies the problem - it’s not obvious. How does Ross find the right blend, the right balance? We’ve seen what doesn’t work at Burton, and we’ve seen what does work at home to Scunthorpe.
For me Power and Cattermole are automatic picks. They have the personalities, the will to win, the strength to dominate in this league, but they are similar, so they need someone to hold them together. So that means McGeough sitting between and behind them - almost back to Allardyce’s system. We haven’t had the opportunity to see how that works yet.
This wasn’t meant to be about Honeyman, but at full compliment he is the factor which takes away the balance, and balance is the key. It will be interesting to see how Jack Ross works through this and finds the balance in the middle of the team to take us through the season.