Four 3-3 draws this season. Four! That is, to put it bluntly, absolutely mental.
Games against Brentford, Bolton, Bristol City and Boro have witnessed Sunderland at their best and their very worst; swashbuckling attacks mixed with shambolic defending. Sure, these games are entertaining and despite our dire situation, it was nice to have fun at the Stadium of Light last Saturday, but we need to change things quickly.
If this were a “normal” season you would be able to take these games in isolation and enjoy the chaos on show. Unfortunately, time is running out now and the only way we’ll be enjoying ourselves at the end of the season is if we’ve avoided a second successive relegation.
It’s going to be a huge task for Chris Coleman’s men in these final few weeks. In the upcoming twelve games, seven are against teams in the top half and they will surely be licking their lips at the prospect of facing our leaky defence.
With that in mind I think that it’s clear that Sunderland’s number one plan should be to remove all of the pressure from their back line. I’m aware that’s blindingly obvious but with alternative options returning to the midfield, there may just be an opportunity to disguise the faults at the back.
Since the arrival of Chris Coleman back in November, Sunderland have always looked to play a far more possession-based style of football than they did under Simon Grayson. Coleman has wanted his side to be patient and to build their attacks without panicking, something which has sadly only came to fruition on a small number of occasions.
This has partly been down to a lack of options in midfield, giving players jobs which they’re simply not cut out to perform. The only midfielder who showed the qualities needed to play to Coleman’s wishes on a consistent basis was Darron Gibson (and to a lesser extent George Honeyman) and it’s no coincidence that since his injury, Sunderland have struggled to control games from the middle of the park.
Gibson gave us a calm head, some strength and was able to bring the more dangerous players into the game by playing the vital role of water-carrier. Granted, the bloke was hardly a perfect example of an athlete and needed players such as George Honeyman to do a lot of his running, but Gibson could comfortably fit into the way our manager wants to play.
Thankfully, not only should we have Gibson back in the side soon but there are two more players who have just returned and can give Sunderland a midfield boost.
In Paddy McNair we have a player who gives us some desperately needed height in the midfield. Had he not had his afternoon cut short through injury against Middlesbrough, Sunderland may have been able to control proceedings more effectively and not put themselves in a position where John O’Shea is having to run against someone young enough to be his son.
Out of all of our central midfielders, Jonny Williams is probably the most comfortable at pushing forward with the ball at foot. Coleman had used Williams in the number ten role during his Wales tenure and the way the Crystal Palace loanee arrived in the box for his goal on Saturday showed exactly why. You can further add another huge attribute in Williams’ favour - his ball retention. With a 79% pass completion rate against Middlesbrough, he was the top scorer of any midfielder in red & white when it came to finding a teammate.
The main worry, of course, is - will injury prevent the likes of Williams and McNair playing on a regular basis? Williams has been constantly ruled out this season and as previously mentioned, McNair had to be taken off on Saturday and will be out for at least a few weeks. If they remain available for the rest of the season, they give us the chance of having a midfield that is robust, competitive and an attacking threat.
Should Coleman wish to go more defensive, he could play Williams and McNair alongside a deep lying Lee Cattermole or Darron Gibson when he returns. However, if the manager wants to get at the opposition, he could select George Honeyman or Ovie Ejaria and trust that they’ll be able to be both disciplined and dangerous enough going forward, that an anchor man isn’t needed.
Crucially though, having a midfield that has the quality, guile and experience to take control of games will minimise the opposition’s opportunities against our defence. If Sunderland’s middle men are keeping the ball better or are simply better at winning it back, the teams we face simply won’t have as many chances to hurt us.
With a fully-fit squad, Chris Coleman has a far steadier midfield than he does defence. Even if he rotates his defenders, there still isn’t as much to shout about especially when compared to the midfield. I don’t really have to go into the problems facing Sunderland in goal either. So, a fully fit and stronger midfield which is far better than the defence behind it, allows us to accentuate our positives and hide our mistakes.
It may be too late to completely save us but maybe the next time we score a few goals, it will prevent us from conceding just as many.