Sunderland made just one enforced change from their last league game, a 2-1 win at Bradford City, as the suspended Max Power was replaced by Dylan McGeouch. Lynden Gooch returned from injury to start on the bench.
Sunderland continued with the 4-4-2 formation which produced some good performances before the international break. Jon McLaughlin continued in goal with Adam Matthews, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and Reece James starting in an unchanged back four. Dylan McGeouch sat with Lee Cattermole in the middle of the park, with the recently dethroned Chris Maguire on the right, and Aidan McGeady on the left. Josh Maja started in support of the on-loan Jerome Sinclair.
Shrewsbury made three changes after a poor result last weekend - a 2-1 defeat at Joey Barton’s Fleetwood. Anthony Grant and Greg Docherty - who was linked with Sunderland in the summer - came into the midfield for Oliver Norburn and Fejiri Okenabirhie. Lee Angol started up front as Lenell John-Lewis dropped out.
The home side lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with Joel Coleman started in goal and Joel Emmanuel, Luke Waterfall, Matt Sadler and Omar Beckles making up the back four. Anthony Grant started as the deepest midfielder, alongside Greg Docherty and Josh Laurent. Shaun Whalley and Alex Gilliead started out wide in support of the lone striker, Lee Angol.
The negatives of 4-4-2 on show in the first half
Despite eventually coming out on top, Sunderland were the worst of the two sides in the first half as they struggled to cope with the intensity of Shrewsbury’s play.
This poor first half display showed the main weaknesses of the 4-4-2 formation that had looked so strong in Sunderland’s last two games - the main problem being the lack of a number ten to act as a link between the holding midfielders and the forwards. This problem is less evident when one of the central midfielders is a box-to-box player - like Max Power - as this player links the play with vertical dribbles up the pitch.
Unfortunately for Sunderland, due to Power’s suspension, Cattermole and McGeouch started as two more sitting midfielders. Despite Cattermole being more attacking this season, this has been in the form of late runs into the box rather than powerful forward runs up the pitch with the ball. Without a box-to-box player, 4-4-2 forces Sunderland to go more direct and, against Shrewsbury at least, neither Maja nor Sinclair managed to hold the ball up and this is why Sunderland couldn’t retain possession during the fifty-odd minutes.
This disconnect between attack and midfield, and Sunderland’s subsequent poor first half display meant that it was only a matter of time before Jack Ross took off one of the strikers to play with a number 10.
The introduction of Gooch and Honeyman changed the game
Thankfully for Sunderland, they managed to not concede despite not being at their best, and this meant that when Jack Ross introduced the duo of Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman, it was only a few minutes before The Black Cats were in front.
Gooch was brought on first, after 54 minutes, in place of striker Josh Maja. This meant Chris Maguire went into the number 10 position behind Sinclair and the American played on the right. Three minutes later, captain Honeyman replaced McGeady on the left.
Gooch naturally played much wider that Maguire, who likes to drift inside, and this width down the right was important - especially since Adam Matthews rarely managed to impact the game going forward. In fact Sunderland’s first goal - an own goal from Emmanuel - came from Gooch’s cross from wide on the right hand side, albeit after a short corner.
Honeyman, on the other side, demonstrated some tidy link up play and the more attacking full back Reece James allowed him to play slightly narrower than his fellow academy graduate. The captain’s tidy passing was evident and helped Sunderland keep the ball much better after his introduction. Furthermore, Honeyman didn’t just offer more than McGeady with the ball, but also without it. The former academy man tracked back to help out James more than the Irish international, and was also a more active participant in Sunderland’s pressing.
Whilst both Gooch and Honeyman made positive impacts off the bench, the most important change in Sunderland getting the three points was the change in formation, and it is no coincidence that both goals came after the switch to 4-2-3-1 which deployed Maguire as a link man behind striker Sinclair.
A new role for Luke O’Nien
Gooch and Honeyman weren’t the only substitutes to make an impact, as summer signing Luke O’Nien - brought on for Sinclair after 82 minutes - scored his first goal for the club with an accurate finish into the bottom right corner. What was interesting about the performance of O’Nien during his ten or so minutes is that he played further forward than in many of his previous appearances in red and white.
This more advanced position not only showed off the former Wycombe man’s goal scoring ability, but also gave him less positional responsibility when Sunderland were out of possession. O’Nien has often looked a bit lost in previous games, but it appeared that he knew his role was to offer a goal scoring threat when in possession and close down the opposition midfield without it - and he did both to good effect.
I’m sure I echo the thoughts of many Sunderland fans when I say I’m over the moon for O’Nien and hope his first goal on Saturday is the first of many for our young midfielder.