Jack Ross made just one change from Sunderland’s last league game, a two-nil win away at Plymouth two weeks ago, as Josh Maja was replaced by Jerome Sinclair.
This meant that Sunderland lined up in their manager’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, with the familiar back five of McLaughlin, in goal, Matthews, Flanagan, Baldwin and James. Dylan McGeouch started as the deepest midfielder alongside a slightly more attacking Honeyman. Lynden Gooch started on the right, with Maguire starting as a number ten; although these two interchanged throughout. Aiden McGeady, who’s brace won the game at Plymouth, started on the left with Sinclair given the lone striker role.
Wycombe made three changes from their last league game, also two weeks ago, which was a one-nil home victory against high-flying Peterborough. Matt Ingram replaced Allsop in goal, Sido Jombati came in for Charles at centre back and Curtis Thompson replaced Cowan-Hall in the centre of midfield.
This meant that Gareth Ainsworth’s side lined up in a 4-3-3 formation. Ingram, recently brought in on an emergency loan, started in goal behind a defence of Jason McCarthy, Jombati, Adam El-Abd and Joe Jacobson. Dominic Gabe started in the centre of the midfield three, alongside Bryn Morris and Thompson. The goalscorer Fred Onyedinma started on the right wing, with Randell Williams on the left and Alex Samuel up front.
Too many attacking players?
With captain George Honeyman again deployed in a deeper midfield role, when Sunderland were without the ball, Sunderland frequently attacked in a 4-1-4-1 formation - with a line of four attacking midfielders. Being a number ten naturally, Honeyman pushed forward alongside Maguire, leaving McGeouch as a lone pivote.
Whilst playing with this number of attacking midfielder can work, it requires two wingers who look to make the pitch as wide as possible. However, unfortunately for Sunderland this is not how the game panned out and McGeady looked to drift inside from his position on the left.
Because Sunderland lacked width, this meant space in central areas became restricted and, as Wycombe played with three central players of their own, played straight into the visitor’s hands.
This overloading of central areas also contributed to the poor performance of Dylan McGeouch, resulting in him being taken off for Max Power after 54 minutes. Whilst the role of a lone pivote does suit McGeouch’s skill set, because the movement of the players ahead of home was poor, and they were positioned too narrow, he was hamstrung by a lack of space to pass the ball into.
This is something rather easily fixed now that Max Power is available, and perhaps Jack Ross should consider taking an attacking player out of the line up in order to give Sunderland’s creative players more room to work in.
Maja must start when fit
From early in the game it was clear that Sunderland had a plan to keep the ball on the floor in order to prevent the game turning into a physical battle over aerial balls. This plan made Jack Ross’ decision to play Sinclair ahead of Maja a slightly strange one.
Although Wycombe are a physical side, meaning you can see the logic in picking a more physical striker, they are also a side that was never likely to push high up the pitch and leave space in behind - something which Sinclair thrives on.
Rather predictably, Wycombe played with quite a deep defensive line and operated with three central midfielders. This, along with Sunderland’s lack of width going forward, meant that space was at a premium in the final third - something which the intelligent movement of Maja is much more suited to than the brawn of Sinclair.
This is not to say that Sinclair does not have a role to play in the squad, in fact far from it, but Maja came off the bench to score his eleventh goal of the season, and in him Sunderland have a young man in the form of his life and the best finisher in the division. They would be mad not to have him on the pitch when possible.
The McGeady-Maguire conundrum
As I have mentioned earlier, Sunderland were crying out for some width on the left hand side all game, something which Jack Ross agreed judging by the introduction of Oviedo. This was down in part to McGeady’s wishes to drift inside and Saturday’s poor performance presents the question of whether McGeady and Maguie can play in the same side, or whether they are too similar to do so successfully.
There is no question that both are among Sunderland’s most skillful players, but it also cannot be denied that their movement is similar - both like to drift inside from that left hand side and tend to come short rather than run in behind.
Furthermore, despite Sunderland’s recent good run of form, games where both McGeady and Maguire have had good games have been few and far between and whilst I don’t expect Jack Ross to make any knee-jerk decisions after just one bad performance, the return of Power (and with Cattermole not far behind him) means the Sunderland manager will soon possess an array of options in centre midfield, freeing Honeyman to return to his position further forward.