Who should play up front for Sunderland?
This poll is closed
Now before I start I feel that it’s important to say that 19-year old forward Josh Maja is undoubtedly a quality footballer - that much cannot be questioned here.
Where the questions start to arise is whether the team as a whole plays better with him upfront, or whether the more physical - and, arguably, selfless - Jerome Sinclair makes the other ten players in the team operate better than they do without him in the side.
Jack Ross currently finds himself in a difficult position. Whilst Maja is the more prolific of our forward options, Watford loanee Sinclair offers a completely different option that perhaps benefits the team in various other ways.
So, is it Maja, Sinclair, or both?
Maja’s main strength is his finishing, something which is hard to teach, and this sets him apart from the majority of the strikers who play in League One. He has nine goals in fifteen league appearances (and a further goal in the Checkatrade Trophy), and from just nineteen shots, anyone with those kind of numbers deserves a regular starting position in a League One team in some capacity.
However, despite his prolific goal scoring return, being just nineteen years old, Maja does have rather large deficiencies in his all round game. He struggles to hold the ball up when up against strong central defenders, and his runs in behind the opposition defences are few and far between. The main detriment to Sunderland’s overall play when Maja is upfront is that the teenager doesn’t engage in the high press as often as Sinclair.
Due to his shear volume of goals, some might argue that it is up to the players around him to make up for his shortcomings. This may carry some weight as seven of the striker’s goals have came whilst George Honeyman, known for his pressing and energy in midfield, was operating in the number ten position. Although this stat may be deceiving, since Honeyman has played most games in this position, it is interesting nonetheless and may indicate that the way to get the best out of the team is to employ attacking midfielders behind him who can make up for his deficiencies.
Furthermore, recent stats showed that Sunderland ranked 18th in the league for number of shots in the box, and surely a team which seemingly doesn’t create too many close range shooting opportunities wants one of the league’s finest finishers on the end of them.
In many ways, Sunderland’s other young striker is the polar opposite of Josh Maja.
Sinclair’s strengths are Maja’s weaknesses - running in behind, pressing opposition defenders, physicality; he has all three in abundance - but the Watford loanee is lacking is his goal-scoring, which just happens to be Maja’s strength.
Now you see why Jack Ross has a dilemma.
Sinclair’s relentless pressing and physicality leading the line means that an extra “luxury” player, such as McGeady, can operate in one of the attacking midfield positions, and this makes it easy to see why certain quarters of Sunderland’s fanbase think Sinclair makes the team play better football.
Sinclair’s pressing also negates the need for Honeyman to play as a number ten, allowing the captain to play in the deeper midfield role where he has stood out in recent games - this also allows an extra ball-player to be incorporated into Sunderland’s midfield.
Sinclair’s running in behind makes him an obvious candidate for games where Sunderland are holding onto a lead, or where Jack Ross feels like he needs some more direct running from his centre forward. However, his lack of goal-scoring leaves the door open for the Scottish manager to choose his main goalscorer.
Maybe Ross should try and find a way to get them both in the side.
Sunderland have played with Maja and Sinclair as a pair on a few occasions: Peterborough at home, Bradford away, and in the first half at Shrewsbury.
The results in these games have been largely positive - a draw against high-flying Peterborough, and two victories on the road; however, Jack Ross turned away from the 4-4-2 after a pretty dire attacking display for the first period at Shrewsbury.
Sunderland started the season using a lopsided 3-5-2 formation, and there is no reason why, if Ross wanted to get two strikers in the team without dropping one of other attacking players, he would not see this as an option.
This system would not be entirely straight forward, and would certainly take some work on the training ground, but Jack Ross has shown that he is not afraid to think out of the box in his quest for perfection.
Lynden Gooch could drop back to a right wing-back - a position he played in the 3-5-2 at the start of the season. Either Adam Matthews of Reece James would be comfortable operation as a third centre half whilst Jack Baldwin is perfect for the “Libero” role in the middle of the back three. Tom Flanagan, like Matthews and James is comfortable at full back which makes him the perfect fit for the final centre back position.
In midfield, any of Sunderland’s midfielders would be comfortable in deeper positions, covering for any centre half who brings the ball out - Power and Honeyman would be my picks at the moment, but there is not reason why Cattermole and McGeouch could not be suitable. Chris Maguire and Aiden McGeady are both comfortable out wide and as a number ten whilst the attributes of Sinclair and Maja complement each other perfectly in a pair up front.
It sounds perfect, but maybe I’ve been playing too much Football Manager.