The teams and the game
Jack Ross made three change following a slightly disappointing one-all draw at home to Wycombe. The Sunderland’s goalscorer that day, Josh Maja, replaced Jerome Sinclair up front, Bryan Oviedo returned to the starting line up in place of Chris Maguire, and Max Power replaced Dylan McGeouch.
Despite these changes, Sunderland again lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The back five of Jon McLaughlin, Adam Matthews, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and Reece James was unchanged. Max Power and George Honeyman started in the middle with Bryan Oviedo and Aiden McGeady out wide. Lynden Gooch started in the number ten position, just behind Josh Maja.
The hosts lined up in a traditional 4-4-2 formation, unchanged from their previous match. Liam Roberts started in goal with a back four of Nicky Devlin, Russell Martin, Joe Guthrie and Luke Leahy in front of him. Liam Kinsella and George Dobson started in the engine room with Zeli Ismail and Josh Ginnelly on the wings. Josh Gordon and Andy Cook were paired up front.
Tactically the game can be split into three sections as Sunderland first started strongly before Max Power’s red card led to a spell where they were second best all over the park and deserved to be two down. But the final portion of the game, following a couple of substitutions and tactical tweaks, included two goals for Ross’ men as Lynden Gooch unleashed scenes in the away end with his cracking finish to square the game.
Part I: A strong start
Sunderland started the game strongly and, despite surprising some, the decision to play Oviedo on the right and McGeady on the left seemed to work. Most of the away side’s promising attacking play was based around getting the ball to these wide players who are both skilled enough to cut inside or get to the byline. The twelve Sunderland corners awarded in the first half reflect this focus on width and looking to get the ball into the box.
Lynden Gooch started centrally and, with Jack Ross picking Maja over Sinclair, took over the latter’s role of pressing the Walsall defence - albeit from a slightly deeper starting position. When the ball went wide, Gooch looked to get in the box along with Maja - although it wasn’t until much later that he got his reward for this.
Part II: A poor middle
Without doubt the turning point of the game was Max Power’s sending off in the twenty-third minute. Now it can be debated all day whether or not the decision was the right one, but at the end of the day it was given and it certainly had an effect on the game.
Somewhat strangely, Jack Ross decided not to make a substitution in response to Power’s dismissal, instead he instructed Gooch to drop back into midfield alongside Honeyman. It’s no surprise that the loss of an attacking midfield in support of Maja left the teenager looking awfully isolated and unable to hold the ball up effectively in order to buy time for support.
Sunderland’s poor play continued into the second half, and resulted in two Walsall goals The first was extremely weak from a defensive point of view as it was far too easy for the Dobson to get his cross in and Josh Gordon found it equally as simple to beat Tom Flanagan to the ball at the near post.
This period of the game is where criticism can be levelled at Jack Ross, and especially his decision to make no substitutions at half time, despite Sunderland having been second best for the latter half of the first period. The combination of Gooch and Honeyman left Sunderland open at the back and toothless up front; it’s no surprise to see that it wasn’t until the manager made some changes that Sunderland got back into the game.
Part III: The grand finale
Jack Ross’ decision to take Oviedo off in order to introduce O’Nien just before the hosts’ second goal raised a few eyebrows as the Costa Rican had been one of Sunderland’s better players going forward, but this change, paired with the introduction of Maguire for Maja ten minutes later, provided the spark for Sunderland’s comeback.
With both O’Nien and Maguire on, Jack Ross went for a risky strategy - but one which was needed. George Honeyman played even deeper and was flanked by Gooch and the energy of O’Nien. This left both Mcgeady and Maguire free to interchange positions in a front two and, with the full backs now tasked with providing that width, Sunderland were able to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and turn it around.
Despite this attacking strategy, Jack Ross didn’t go completely gung-ho and leave Sunderland open at the back, McGeady (yes, ‘lazy’ Aiden McGeady) dropped back into wide midfield when Walsall attacked.
Particular credit must be given to O’Nien who looks likely to start on Tuesday night against Barnsley, and if he shows the same kind of energy he has done off the bench in recent weeks, he has a chance to make a place in the Sunderland midfield his own