Jack Ross made just a single change after ten-man Sunderland came from two-down away at Walsall on Saturday afternoon, with Chris Maguire coming in for Bryan Oviedo. Max Power was available after a successful appeal against his red card at the Bescot.
Sunderland did however, change formation and lined up in a 4-3-3 shape. The goalkeeper, Jon McLaughlin, and back four of Adam Matthews, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and Reece James remained unchanged for the eighth game in a row. Max Power anchored the midfield, accompanied by Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman in the middle of the park. Aiden McGeady, Chris Maguire and Josh Maja started as a very narrow front three.
The visitors made three changes from the side which drew one-all at home against Doncaster. Fryers, Thiam and Woodrow came in for Pinillos, Bahre and Hedges.
Barnsley lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Adam Davies in goal, Dimitri Cavare, Ethan Pinnock, Liam Lindsay and Zaki Fryers in defence. Cameron McGeehan and Alex Mowatt were flanked by Brad Potts and Mamadou Thiam in midfield as Cauley Woodrow and Kieffer Moore started up front.
The change of formation worked
Despite his line up possessing the players to fit the recently prefered 4-2-3-1, Sunderland actually lined up in a 4-3-3 for the first time since the opening day. The defence and midfield were pretty standard, as Max Power played deeper in front of the back four in a role which he often performs when playing in a two-man midfield.
Up front Sunderland’s set up was rather interesting, as the front four played very narrow and interchanged at will throughout the game, with Maja and McGeady regular interchanging positions on the right hand side.
This change of formation was not the risky part of Jack Ross’ strategy, but how he instructed his players to play within this shape was. Sunderland had clearly been instructed to leave at least two (if not all) of their three forwards up the pitch when they lost the ball.
This meant that Sunderland relied heavily on the energy of Gooch and Honeyman to make up for them being a man light in midfield when Barnsley went forward. The stats show that this is exactly what happened, as Sunderland’s midfield three (Power, Gooch and Honeyman) combined made 47 challenges, whereas Barnsley’s midfield FOUR (Potts, McGeehan, Mowatt and Thiam) only made 39; despite their numeric advantage.
Despite conceding two goals - one was a failure to clear their lines, and another came from a corner - Jack Ross’ strategy worked and Sunderland looked like scoring every time they went forward, whilst doing enough at the back to prevent Barnsley from outscoring them.
The Welsh Lahm
When Adam Matthews was nominated for the October League One player of the month many were surprised to say the least, but if the Welshman was nominated this month I’m sure the reaction would be different.
The former Celtic full back has become one of the first names on the team sheet and is improving game by game as he settles into his role in a settled back four. Matthews has always been known to be better going forward than defending, although he does this not by using extreme pace, but by being a comfortable on the ball.
When Matthews goes forward, he’s happy to drift inside with the ball, becoming an extra midfielder. Matthews good passing ability is not just because he takes the easy option in possession, but he actually played the most passes into the final third of all Sunderland players on Tuesday night - yes this is our right back - and one of these passes was the assist for Sunderland’s second goal of the night.
Honeyman thriving in a deeper role
George Honeyman’s role at the base of midfield in Sunderland’s comeback at Walsall went under the radar due to impressive displays from his colleagues further forward, but the Sunderland captain was at the forefront of many of the good things in this 4-2 win at the Stadium of Light.
Since moving into a deeper role, first in a midfield two alongside McGeouch and then Power, and then in a midfield three against Barnsley on Tuesday night, Honeyman has put in the kind of performances which earned him the captaincy.
When playing in the number ten position, his tidy passing was something of a criticism, as some sections of the Sunderland faithful claimed he wasn’t creative enough. Although I believe Honeyman actually performed well in attacking midfield - his strengthens being overlooked because he was often the player who assisted the assister, rather than the man to grab the headlines - in a deeper role the captain is much more involved, and his tidy passing is a real asset and helps to keep the ball moving as Sunderland transition from defence to attack.
Honeyman’s role in these transitions were vital on Tuesday night, especially since Sunderland were reliant on the full backs for width with the wingers playing so high and narrow. Honeyman exchanged 17 passes with left back Reece James, and acted as a pivote for Sunderland’s left side as the ball was played into him and he looked to pass forward either to James, who had time to get forward, or to one of Sunderland’s forwards.