Lineup - a positive approach
The surprising 4-1 win over Derby County gave Chris Coleman no option but to throw everything at Sheffield Wednesday. Just like they did at Pride Park, Sunderland opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation with Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch pushing high up when in possession, whilst Paddy McNair and George Honeyman were much more advanced than Lee Cattermole in the centre of the pitch.
In an attacking sense, it did have the Lads looking more dangerous than they have in a while, especially at home. Even compared to the Derby game, they had more shots on goal, they completed more dribbles, won more corners and had more possession over all.
The presence of Paddy McNair was certainly a factor in Sunderland being able to control large periods of the game. The former Manchester United man broke up play effectively and his physicality (the like of which no other Sunderland midfielders possess) drove the team up the pitch. This opened up space for Aiden McGeady to look more like the player who began the season and it allowed Lynden Gooch some similar joy on the opposite flank.
When you look at how Sunderland approached this fixture, in the way that they wanted to dominate and cause Sheffield Wednesday problems, it’s exactly what the fans wanted.
Chris Coleman knew that his charges would have to assert some authority on the game and you can’t really criticise the initial plan - so where did it all go wrong?
More atrocious defending
Naturally, as has been the way with Sunderland all season, it would be the mess at the back that would eventually let them down.
The first goal was avoidable at a few different stages. Wednesday should have never been allowed their attack in the first place after Lee Camp’s terrible out ball put his side back under pressure but, following that, the defence failed to reorganise - you only have to look at the fact that Bryan Oviedo was left to mark the beast that is Atdhe Nuhiu to know that.
Once Nuhiu had knocked the ball down it was already over as John O’Shea and Marc Wilson were caught ball watching, with neither man there to pick up Lucas Joao. Given the stature of Nuhiu you have to accept that you’re not going to beat him in the air every time, so it’s crucial to effectively pick up the second ball.
On the halfway line Sunderland had coped with the Wednesday target man reasonably well by employing this tactic, but failed to do so at what became a vital moment. Had O’Shea and Wilson been more alert here they may have got to the ball before Joao, and thus preventing the goal.
Set pieces have been Sunderland’s nadir all season, so it’s no shock that Wednesday took advantage of one to reclaim their lead. There’s no further analysis you can give the third goal of the game other than to say it was terrible.
Fair enough, it’s a decent enough ball in from Joey Peluspessy, but for Tom Lees to go unmarked and to have a goalkeeper looking cluelessly rooted to his line is horrendous - any team at any level will punish such weak “defending”, and if we don’t sort this out over the summer there’s no doubting that League One clubs will continue to target us aerially.
It wouldn’t be the last time Lee Camp stood looking gormless on his line either. Adam Reach’s cross may have been at an awkward height but Camp just watched it drift along the six yard box as if it was the wrong bus. It’s bad enough to have a ‘keeper that can’t command his eighteen yard box but ours struggles with just six. Incredible.
He may have made an initial save before Nuhiu nodded home but Camp dealt with the cross in the first place, he never would have had a save to make.
Isolation in attack
While Sunderland did manage 21 shots against Sheffield Wednesday, only seven were inside the box. Some of the ones from range did go close, such as Lee Cattermole hitting the post and Donald Love firing narrowly over the crossbar but Ashley Fletcher, who didn’t have a bad game, was left completely isolated for the mostpart.
To put how isolated Fletcher was into context, he only had twenty four touches during the game - the same amount as Lee Camp. Of those twenty four only three were inside the Wednesday box, with most of Fletcher’s time on the ball coming when he dropped deep to try and link play.
It’s good to see Fletcher coming to look for the ball and using his physique to help Sunderland move forward but when playing as a lone striker, without a natural number ten behind him, it leaves the Lads short of options in the final third if they want to break quickly.
Sunderland’s approach to attacking was certainly better but there are still improvements to be made if they want to hurt teams in the final run of games - just for their own pride if for nothing else.
Chris Coleman doesn’t exactly have an embarrassment of riches to choose from but picking someone to play directly in the space behind Fletcher when they travel to Elland Road on Saturday could help to solve the puzzle.
Summary: Just not good enough
For large periods of the game the effort was apparent from those in red and white. I do believe that most of them gave everything they could against Sheffield Wednesday, but when there’s always going to be a mistake lurking around the corner it’s just not enough.
We can see that Sunderland do have something of a fluidity when it comes to attacking. With everyone fully fit, this is a team capable of goals, provided the same kind of endeavour is shown in a similar system. It’s probably too late for that to turn things around but if they want to fight to the end, that kind of attacking philosophy should be maintained for the final run of games.
From now until the end of the season (which really can’t come soon enough) Sunderland must find some kind of defensive organisation.
Sheffield Wednesday only had six shots in the second half and scored with half of them, and that is fundamentally awful.
I believe that the attacking aspect of our game will take care of itself, provided another raft of injuries doesn’t occur, but the defensive side won’t and Chris Coleman has to find a way to whip that defence into shape if he thinks he can drag the club out of the bottom three.
I don’t think there’s the time left to do that, but I would be delighted to be proved wrong.