Jack Ross made eleven changes to the side that defeated Morecambe in the Checkatrade Trophy last week, but reverted back to the same side in our last league game away at Plymouth a fortnight earlier.
There were two general talking points in the lead-up to the game - whether or not Max Power would return to the starting eleven in place of either central midfielder George Honeyman or Dylan McGeouch, and whether or not top goalscorer Josh Maja would displace Jerome Sinclair from his spot up top.
Ross left both Maja and Power on the bench, two decisions I’d argue with hindsight were mistakes - and he even seemed to allude as much himself post-game (but more on that later).
Although we arguably needed Sinclair’s physicality for the set pieces against a massive Wycombe side, Maja’s goal-scoring instincts are so potent that he should essentially be starting whenever fit. Power has deservedly been out of action for some time after his stupidity against Bradford, however our slight and ineffective midfield was dominated by Wycombe’s for the better part of just under an hour.
Despite finding victory against Plymouth and Port Vale, Honeyman and McGeouch are a weak pairing in the middle. The latter sits very deep, and was operating almost as a third central defender at times while Honeyman naturally pushed high - at times this verticality is effective (especially against a flat two-man midfield) but against a three led by Bryn Morris in a more advanced role, it would always struggle.
Morris did not quite play in the ten role, but man-marked McGeough for the majority of the game, completing five defensive actions (tackles and interceptions) on the Scot, restricting his effectiveness on the ball. As a result, McGeouch himself completed just 19 passes at an effectiveness of just 73% - the lowest in the side barring Jerome Sinclair up top.
Verdict: Although Maja has to start due to his sheer goal threat, Power’s inclusion was just as important. Ross got this one slightly wrong, but the failure to win does not lie with him.
Over the last two months, the style and tactics employed by Ross have shifted slightly - emulating a much more direct and quicker style than seen earlier in the season. This has worked previously due to either genuine superior ability in attacking areas or via a key tactical component; positional attacks.
We are by far and away the most efficient side in the league at cutting opponents apart by positional forms - attacks which are generated in open play specifically targeting an opponents weakness. For example, take Plymouth. Their flat midfield two and deep defensive line left huge gaps in the six role area, and McGeady capitalised on this, as well as focusing on their dodgy right-back (40% of all attacks went down his side).
We attempted the same on Saturday, a massive 70% of all attacks were positional, yet only 8 of the total 68 were successful. This is in part due to two main factors; Wycombe’s own defensive work, and a significant number of our attacking players having their worst game in months.
The Chairboys’ effectiveness at cutting our passing lanes high up the pitch is to be applauded - Gareth Ainsworth followed Joey Barton and Karl Robinson’s cue by starving our attacking players of service through marking the zone (not the man) and positioning themselves in between passing lanes as opposed to mindlessly charging down our players on the ball. They carried out 19 recoveries in our half, one of which led to the opening goal.
However, it is clear our players were just not in form either - as is expected in the ebb and flow of a long season. Maguire, Gooch, McGeady, Sinclair and Honeyman all had off days in general on the ball and Matthews and James rarely joined attacks. In fact, even Baldwin and Flanagan (to a lesser extent) struggled on the ball.
Reece James was replaced by Bryan Oviedo in a clear attempt to push the side both 10 yards higher up the pitch, and provide some penetration and width in behind Wycombe’s packed defence. Although the former had a solid game defensively, his attacking impact was muted, possibly due to the recent tactical change as the full-backs have obviously been encouraged to make a lower quantity of higher quality runs, rather than spending half the game essentially on the wing as seen early in the season.
The Costa Rican provided vital width out wide, and although he didn’t really have time to make much of an impact, it was how he did which is impressive. He pushed very high up the pitch and carried out what I’d presume was Ross’ desired outcome to aplomb.
Verdict: Ainsworth got his defensive tatics spot on, and Ross almost turned the game around. Yet this is on the team who started - they had an off day (and fair enough in a 46 games season, it happens), but we still came out with our unbeaten home record in tact.
When Josh Maja was introduced, he stretched the Wycombe defence much more efficiently than Sinclair (partly due to the away side sitting much deeper), as the on-loan Watford man only really made two actions of note; one of which a beautifully deft flick-on to Aiden McGeady, who blazed an almost one-on-one opportunity well wide at the near post.
Conversely, tactics switched to look for Maja in behind Wycombe’s defensive line, as he made more vertical runs in the second half than any other player - a mean feat considering he only featured for 43 minutes. As shown above, his average position lies just outside Wycombe’s box, proving his intentions from the outset.
Max Power provided a crucial link between midfield and attack, bringing out front three back into the game. They had been utterly woeful in the first-half, both Maguire and McGeady completed more offensive actions in the last 20 minutes than they did in the preceding 70, just as Power’s impact began to peak.
Power-Maguire and Power-McGeady proved to be among the most utilised pass combination in the second-half, and he even created the chance for Honeyman to excellently pick up an “assist” (technically it wont be credited to him due to a deflection, but it was essentially his work).
Verdict: Ross identified what was needed, and made the three right subs to get us back into the game and almost steal it at the depth. Such was Power and Maja’s impact, that they accounted for 80% of all Sunderland shots on goal throughout the game. Mcgeady’s sitter was the only other.
Ross credited Wycombe’s style of play almost immediately in his post-match interview. Rightfully so too. Wycombe play in a real sh*thouse manner, and would have done so even more had man mountain Adebayo Akinfenwa been fit. Nevertheless, Ainsworth set his team up perfectly to stifle us and hope a piece of genuine individual brilliance did not undo them.
The Scot held particular praise for Maja - the highest scoring teen in English football - as he reached double figures for the season (in the league). Deservedly so too, without that mans goals (resulting from few touches in the box...) we’d be struggling.
After that, it was a regular fare from Ross, praising the effort, fans, charisma of the side and discussing the importance of momentum. See his full thoughts below.
Verdict: Good stuff from the gaffer, but I can’t help but feel he rues not starting Maja and Power from the outset. Interestingly he almost admitted to it, discussing his “responsibility” over making tough decisions.