Jack Ross made three changes to the side which drew with Wycombe last week, with Max Power and Josh Maja replacing Dylan McGeouch and Jerome Sinclair. Ross, however, surprised many by dropping Chris Maguire and replacing him with Bryan Oviedo, who surprisingly lined up on the right-wing.
The latter was a surprising inclusion - many expected him to line up either on the left-wing or at wing back, but right-wing is a new position for the Costa Rican at Sunderland - a position that he played previously during his stints with Everton and Copenhagen.
Before Oviedo was withdrawn in the 52nd minute I thought his inclusion was warranted. Barring the first twenty minutes, in which we dominated, Oviedo was the only man able to beat his marker on nearly every opportunity and even put some dangerous balls into the box from set pieces.
Maja deservedly reclaimed his spot in the starting eleven after his game-saving equaliser last week, but it would be remiss not to focus on Power here. The red-card tackle itself and his own role in the team caused much debate and consternation both during and after the game.
Firstly, while I do admit he needlessly put himself in a position to force the referee into making a decision and was reckless, I don’t believe the foul was a red card offence. Yes he was very late, and it did seem like he lunged, but the contact was minimal, the tackle itself was one-footed and his studs were pointed down at the ground. It was the theatrics (and dangerous slide) of the opposing player and the numerous Walsall players rushing the ref which caused the official to make his mind up.
Power did deserve some criticism, but I don’t believe he should be cast-off, especially now the ban has been overturned. Yes it was needless, and he really needs to change his game. The Oxford sending off was the first of his career (including over 200 competitive games in the football league), but it cannot be denied he is a talented player and impacts the game whenever he is on the pitch.
Ross, a man who hold psychological and mental development close, needs to talk with Power and get him some psychological help. It seems he is trying far too hard and committing too much into needless things. Maybe the pressure of playing for a club dwarfing the size of his previous ones in the famous Sunderland pressure cooker could be too much. Before the Bradford game, I think we would all agree he would be an ideal candidate to captain the side, and when given the opportunity, the pressure proved too much and he lost his head.
Ross did the right thing sticking by his player and a public dressing down is clearly the last thing Power required. Now, the Scot needs to use all aspects of his vast knowledge of the game, psychology and basic man management to get around this spell and avoid further red cards in the future.
Verdict: Despite the red, which did prevent us from winning the game, Ross got his line-up bang on - but the hard work only starts now. We got a (deserved) lucky escape, let’s take advantage of it.
Ross set up with inverted wingers on opposing sides of the pitch for the first time this season, lining Lynden Gooch much more central and almost alongside Josh Maja. As a result, we played a much higher percentage of long and direct passes than last week at home to Wycombe.
This was a clear tactic to take advantage of Walsall’s own high defensive line. The Saddlers are a very direct side, and looked to hit it long to Cook and Gordon at every opportunity. As a result, as shown below, our wide players pushed high up the pitch while Baldwin and Flanagan were forced very deep.
As a direct result, 78% of all Sunderland attacks came down the flanks (62/79) and both Reece James and Adam Matthews were involved in the ten most frequent passing combinations throughout the whole side (with each respective sides’ wingers two of the top three).
The aim was to obviously attempt to nullify their height, stretch Walsall’s defence out wide and get in behind - yet this game plan almost went out the window entirely after Power’s red card. After that, the home side received a huge impetus boost as well as being able to dominate midfield.
In fact, Adam Matthews was statistically the most proficient performer throughout the whole side. In attack, he attempted the most passes (50) completed the most (40), the highest success rate (80%), and attempted the most attacking actions (83), complete the most (68) and the highest success rate (83%). Furthermore, he completed more attacking passes than any other player (41) and passes into the final third (27).
Defensively, the Welshman carried out he second-most ball recoveries (13), second-most challenges on the ground (9), most tackles (4) and pressed effectively, carrying out the second-most interceptions (5) and free-ball recoveries (13) in Walsall’s half.
Despite not really standing out on the day, Matthews influenced the game more than any other player on the pitch, and through some excellently timed attacking runs largely kept their left-hand side pinned back all game. Except, of course, for the second crucial goal.
Although this tactic on the face of it began to work, as soon as Power was sent off all crumbled. Walsall were given an extra 10 yards of space and took advantage very effectively, with each goal being spread out wide quickly before sweeping back into the middle, exposing the stretched Sunderland midfield.
Ross changed his approach in the second-half, boldly lining up in a 4-3-2 formation when down to ten, and swamped the central areas with tricky players cleverly interchanging, while still pushing the full-backs up high. This stretched an already tired Walsall defence even farther and enabled the comeback. Yet it was carried out by a squad who want to win just as much as the fans, who simply “get it” and refuse to give up.
Verdict: The scenes at the end were brilliant, and a result of a hard-fought 90 minutes, which had everything; opposition jibes on and off the pitch, back-against-the-wall defending, close shaves, near misses, gut, determination and, finally, quality.
Chris Maguire just loves it. He relishes being at a “big club”, relishes being the pantomime villain and, above all else, relishes proving people wrong.
Both times he has been dropped from the starting lineup the number seven responded with arguably two of his best and most impact-full performances of the season. He reminds me of Borini in his ten-goal season with the way he just gets the bit between his teeth and takes advantage of his salacious need to succeed.
Ross deserves immense credit for this substitution - many wondered why he would withdraw leading goalscorer Maja two goals down, especially to shift from a 4-4-1 to a very attacking 4-3-2. The Scot recently discussed in length his “philosophy” to substitutions in an excellent piece by Phil Smith at the Sunderland Echo, and in it he claimed his assistant, James Fowler, always naturally warns Ross of attacking substitutions, reassuring some conservatism.
However, if Ross did not have the innate ability to make the right change mid-game, nor the gaul to simply go for it, the game at the weekend would have been all but a foregone conclusion. Maguire took the challenge, accepted it and destroyed it with aplomb, just check out his individual performance in just 35 minutes:
From the moment he entered the game, Maguire was involved in every Sunderland attack and deserved the praise for his game-changing introduction.
Verdict: Ross’ ability to analyse and change a game during it’s course is genuinely brilliant. One of the best I’ve seen at Sunderland. It’s a large part why we have already grabbed 14 points from losing positions this season.
Verdict: Ross is right to protect Power. I’ve never agreed with a public dressing-down, especially so early in the season. Collectively? Fine. But never individual.