Jack Ross named an unchanged side, with his side looking for a fourth league win in a row, following a one-nil victory at Doncaster Rovers on Tuesday night.
Sunderland continued with their 4-2-3-1 formation. Jon McLaughlin started in goal behind a back four of Adam Matthews, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and Reece James. Dylan McGeouch and Lee Cattermole were successful in their roles of shielding this back four. Lynden Gooch, George Honeyman and Chris Maguire continued in support of lone striker Jerome Sinclair.
Southend made two changes after a comprehensive three-nil victory at home to Walsall, also on Tuesday night.
Chris Powell set his team up in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Mark Oxley started in goal, with Jason Demetriou, Taylor Moore, former Sunderland defender Michael Turner and Ben Coker lining up in the back four. Stephen McLaughlin, Sam Mantom, Dru Yearwood and Harry Bunn made up the midfield as Timothee Dieng started behind striker Simon Cox.
The key players in Sunderland’s run of clean sheets
At the start of the season Sunderland’s problems were quite clearly at the back. They conceded first in six of the first eight games - many of these from set pieces. But those problems are quite clearly in the past, as shown by three successive clean sheets.
Jon McLaughlin was again impressive, and what perhaps made his performance more impressive was that he wasn’t particularly busy, but when he was called upon, the Scot produced some good saves.
Further forward, Flanagan and Baldwin have developed into an extremely solid pairing at the heart of the defence; it looks like the only place Glenn Loovens will take on his return from injury will be that of Alim Ozturk - on the bench.
The last three performances have also given Jack Ross food for thought on his best central midfield pairing. Max Power was regarded by many as Sunderland’s best midfielder before his sending off at Valley Parade, but since that game Sunderland haven’t conceded a single goal. Cattermole and McGeouch have been a large part of that, frequently picking up loose balls in front of the defence and recycling possession effectively.
Sunderland’s solid formation
However, it is not just individual performances, or partnerships, which have contributed to Sunderland’s run of clean sheets - the formation has also had an impact.
In the last two games Jack Ross has set his team up in a 4-2-3-1 shape, with two conventional full backs, two deep lying midfielders, three more attacking midfielders and a lone striker.
This formation is strong because of its ability to mutate in response to the opposition. For example, if a side is getting joy down the wings, the 4-2-3-1 can change into a 4-4-1-1 with the wingers dropping back to support their full backs.
Similarly, if Sunderland are appearing outnumbered in the middle of the pitch, the formation can morph into a 4-3-3 with Honeyman, the number 10, dropping back into a midfield three whilst the two wingers remain higher to offer Sunderland counter-attacking options.
The last couple of games have probably seen Sunderland playing how Jack Ross would like, in defence at least. A couple of players, such as Power and Maja, would probably come in to form his preferred starting eleven, but neither of these players would radically alter Sunderland’s shape or defensive style of play.
Sunderland managed the game perfectly
During the first half, it was clear that the Sunderland players had been instructed to prevent Southend from taking the lead. This was shown mainly through Sunderland’s reluctance to counter-press when they gave the ball away, instead slotting back into their formation.
This tactic is a good example of Sunderland’s game management and, in truth, the visitors were kept at arm’s length for the majority of the game - barring a good save in each half by McLaughlin.
By keeping it tight at the back, and not trying to force the issue when attacking, Sunderland allowed their superior quality in the final third to show. They scored at “good times”, Honeyman mid way through the first half, Maguire early in the second half to quash Southend’s hopes of a comeback, then finally McGeady to wrap things up.
If you asked someone to describe Sunderland’s performance in one word you would most likely hear things like: accomplished, professional or comfortable. But I would like to add another word to that list: champions, because a team that had lost just one of their last eight games were unable to lay a glove on Jack Ross’ men.