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TALKING TACTICS: Inside the mind of Jack Ross - How will Sunderland set up under the Scotsman?

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What do we know about how St Mirren played last season under Jack Ross’ guidance, and should we expect to see elements of their style in Sunderland’s play in the forthcoming campaign?

Formation

St. Mirren set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with two disciplined central midfielders - most commonly captain Stephen McGinn and Kyle Magennis. Further forward the two wingers remained wide during the build-up of play, which allowed Cammy Smith to roam from his position at number 10 - dropping into midfield, drifting wide and supporting Gavin Reilly up front.

Unlike what many would expect from a second-tier Scottish side, Ross’ side operated without a target man, although John Sutton did offer a more physical option off the bench.


Without the Ball

Jack Ross’ “style of play” was most evident when St. Mirren were without the ball. The back four and two central midfielders maintained their shape whilst the front four pressed the ball high in groups of two or three. This forced the opposition to go long, giving St. Mirren a chance to win the ball in the air, or risk losing the ball deep in their own half by trying to pass through the press.

If their opposition managed to beat the press, St Mirren’s wingers dropped back to support the fullbacks, turning the shape into a 4-4-1-1 with a traditional two banks of four and Smith in behind Reilly.

From here Ross’ men remained compact, applying light pressure to the opposition in order to force a poor touch or misplaced pass which allowed St. Mirren to counter.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

With the Ball

With the ball, St. Mirren played a short passing game. The centre backs played short passes into the central midfielders who dropped deep to receive the ball. When the ball was in midfield, the Saint’s wingers remained high and wide in order to stretch the play and create more space for the central midfielders to pass the ball forwards; often through attacking midfielder Smith, who dropped deep and drifted wide to link the play. Alternatively, the ball was played wide to the wingers who looked to run aggressively at the defence.

When the winger cut inside, the fullback looked to overlap and provide an option for a cross to be put in from the byline, and when the winger took the ball wide the fullback held back to provide an option to recycle possession.

The attacking trio behind the striker were very fluid in the final third as the wingers and attacking midfielder drifted inside and wide respectively. Striker Reilly stayed central waiting for a chance. The fluidity of this front four is shown by Reilly, Smith and left winger Morgan scoring double figures throughout last season.

In contrast to this fluidity, the midfield duo remained. McGinn stayed slightly deeper than his partner who would occasionally break forward if space opened up for him to do so. However, this was mainly on the counter-attack, and when St. Mirren were dominant in possession it was left to the front four to operate in the final third.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Conclusions

Overall, Jack Ross’ success at St. Mirren was brought about by a high pressing and short passing style of play. St. Mirren scored the most goals in the league and conceded the second least, which shows that they took risks in the final third whilst also keeping it tight at the back; essentially, they controlled the game.

When looking at the current squad, it should come as no surprise that Sunderland are rumoured to be after two defenders, two midfielders and two strikers. With the addition of Reece James the fullback positions seem to be covered, and whilst Ozturk and Flanagan have been signed it would appear on the face of it that they’ll primarily be backup - so we should expect to see two new faces in the centre of defence.

The two midfielders are also likely to be defensively minded central players, and the links to George Evans from Reading seems to fit the bill. A replacement for Lee Cattermole would also be required should he leave the club before the end of the transfer window. Dylan McGeouch and Ethan Robson are both comfortable on the ball and prefer to play deeper roles, which makes them perfect for the centre of Jack Ross’ midfield. This also allows George Honeyman and new signing Chris Maguire to battle it out to operate in their favoured attacking midfield position.

The Sunderland squad as it stands
Roker Report

The style of football favoured by Jack Ross makes it a shame that Joel Asoro hasn’t remained at the club - his pace and direct running with the ball would have been perfect for a winger in this system. However, this should also suit Duncan Watmore when he returns to fitness.

Furthermore, hopefully Lynden Gooch can reproduce some of the good performances he showed at the end of last season, whilst Callum McManaman will likely thrive in a more attack-minded system. On the left flank Aiden McGeady also seems made for this system - he is two footed and this could bring the best out of Reece James at left back. Luke Molyneux will be hoping to build on last season and become a more regular member of the first team squad.

Up front, it is no surprise that we’re interested in Charlie Wyke - who would add some much-needed physicality up front - and the recent links to Mo Eisa would give Jack Ross the choice between two prolific centre forwards. Josh Maja may also benefit from being supported by three attacking players as he struggled when playing as a lone striker last season but, as shown by his goal against Fulham, he has potential when the ball is played to his feet.

In all, Jack Ross has a clear blueprint for his side - one that could well work for Sunderland in League One. Reinforcements are definitely needed, and performances must certainly improve based on our most recent friendly games, but the season ahead will be the real test.

And, after last season’s Scottish Championship victory, the Sunderland manager will be keen to get his new side on the path to victory.