A second goal in as many games for teenage striker Josh Maja was cancelled out by Matty Pearson’s second half strike as Sunderland were forced to settle for a draw in their first away game of the season.
Despite the success of the 3-5-2 formation in the second half against Charlton, Sunderland started with the 4-2-3-1 used during pre-season. Sunderland made three changes from the side that started on the opening day as Bryan Oviedo replaced the injured Donald Love, Jack Baldwin replaced Alim Ozturk and new signing Max Power also made his debut; replacing Luke O’Nien.
Luton lined up in a 4-4-2 formation which we will become used to facing in League One. Manager Nathan Jones made two changes after a one-nil defeat away at Portsmouth last weekend; Jack Stacey replaced James Justin at right back and Danny Hylton replaced Harry Cornick up front. Number 10 Elliot Lee started wide but operated in a more central position, especially when Luton had the ball.
Lopsided formation plays to our strengths
Despite reverting back to a back four, the way Sunderland set up was still focused on bringing the best out of the players within it.
This is shown by the role of Bryan Oviedo who played as more of a wing back than a conventional full back. This is without doubt the best role for the former Everton man who is one of Sunderland’s better players technically but is sometimes found wanting in defence. Oviedo was allowed this room to run forward into due to the role of Chris Maguire who, despite lining up on the left wing, regularly drifted inside - to what is also his preferred position.
This was a contrast with the right side of the team where the right-footed Lynden Gooch naturally stayed wider which meant Adam Matthews didn’t overlap as often as his fellow full back.
These tweaks to the basic 4-2-3-1 shape meant that, in attack, Sunderland sometimes resembled a 3-2-4-1 as Oviedo and Gooch provided the width as Honeyman and Maguire operated as number 10’s behind Maja. This shows the importance of having two full backs who play on their “correct” side in order to give width. In defence, Matthews was more cautious although he did advance to support Gooch when Sunderland attacked down the right.
The Fluid Three
The overlapping Oviedo also had a knock on effect on the effectiveness of Sunderland’s three attacking midfielders; Gooch, Honeyman and Maguire.
Because of Oviedo’s overlapping and Maguire’s drifting inside this meant George Honeyman was able to drop deeper and bring the ball forward from deep whilst Maguire took up the number 10 position vacated by Honeyman.
The fluidity of this trio in behind Maja helped to solve some of the problems faced in the first half against Charlton - especially the lack of bodies that were in support of Maja in and around the penalty area.
On the opening day this problem was solved by the introduction of another striker to play alongside Maja, Watford loanee Jerome Sinclair. However, at Kenilworth Road Sunderland showed that they could provide adequate support to the lone striker without playing two up top. Maja was supported by the front three in part due to their fluidity. Chris Maguire was often the target of long goal kicks as he drifted inside to avoid the need for Maja to battle it out in the air with the much stronger Luton centre backs.
Furthermore, Honeyman was happy to go past Maja into the box and Gooch often looks to run inside when he has the ball wide, which is what brought about the goal.
Josh Maja’s cool finish just before half time would have pleased Jack Ross greatly as it was an excellent team move that looked straight off the training ground.
Max Power picked the ball up on the edge of his own box after the centre backs split wide, the former Tranmere man played a simple ball forward to Bali Mumba who passed it wide to captain Honeyman. The skipper then found fellow academy graduate Gooch right on the right hand touchline. Gooch took two Luton players out of the game by playing a one-two with Matthews before a direct run to the edge of the box allowed the American to play in striker Maja in the inside-right channel who finished calmly into the bottom left hand corner; hitting the ball across the goalkeeper.
This goal gives an insight into how Sunderland may play this season, as the ball remained along the ground as it went from the edge of the Sunderland box to the back of the Luton net.
The splitting of the centre backs to allow a midfielder to collect the ball is a popular tactic among teams looking to play an attractive style of play. Lynden Gooch continued his good start to the season by adding an assist to his goal against Charlton, his direct running with the ball from outside to in has become a prominent feature of his play during the first two games and his good form means that, unlike last year, Duncan Watmore can be afforded more time to recover from his long term injury.
Overall, despite picking up two points fewer the game against Luton probably gives a better indication of how Sunderland will play this season than the Charlton game. Sunderland looked to keep the ball on the ground and avoid getting into a physical battle with Luton.
When a long ball was played up field it was often looking to find Maja in the channels to avoid an aerial battle between the 19-year-old and a big, strong centre half.
Therefore, despite the obvious disappointment at losing a lead away from home, Sunderland can take pride in their performance and had Chris Maguire’s second half shot went under the bar they would have been spending Saturday night reflecting on a good win and a good performance. Regardless, things are heading in the right direction for Sunderland under manager Jack Ross.