Team Selection - Sensible
To drop from an exhilarating last-minute opening day win to a draw away to newly-promoted Luton Town may seem underwhelming at best, but in-truth, that is far from the case.
Luton are going to be promotion contenders this season, and to grab a draw against a side still running on promotion adrenaline this early in the season is going to be an important point in the long-run.
Jack Ross made three changes to the side that ran out 2-1 winners over Charlton last weekend. New signing Max Power replaced Luke O’Nien in the engine room while Bryan Oviedo - as expected - came in for Don Love. While Alim Öztürk was replaced by Jack Baldwin.
With two left footers on the left-hand side of defence the whole side looked much more balanced when building attacks from the back - and the pair added some much-needed defensive solidity as well as pace in our back line.
Max Power was slightly surprising selection considering he only partook in one training session as a Sunderland player but I must say, his quality, physicality and experience was a very welcome addition to our midfield.
With nine injuries it is relatively easy to pick a line-up, but Ross got his bang-on. Power directed Mumba all game and is a real all-round central midfielder. Although I would prefer him to play in a more advanced role - leaving Dylan McGeouch to play deeper and dictate.
He isn’t particularly brilliant in one role or area but is a proper jack-of-all-trades. Alongside McGeouch and behind Honeyman, I’d seriously doubt there is a more talented midfield three in the league.
Verdict: The changes added much more balance and steel to the side, remedying some problem’s accrued against Charlton. Pretty much spot-on considering our options.
Tactics - Clever
Last week Jerome Sinclair’s introduction changed the game; he supported Josh Maja ably while threatening himself with his pace in behind the Addick’s back-line. Unfortunately a late hamstring injury ruled him out for Saturday, but Jack Ross recognised this.
Although in defence Sunderland were very much in his preferred 4-2-3-1, in attack Chris Maguire pushed very high and narrow. Maja has always performed better with support, be it Sinclair last week or Joel Asoro last season.
He isn’t a target man, that is simply not his game, back to goal he generally struggles if a powerful defender steps up out of defence and challenges aerially for the ball. However, with the ball at foot he really is excellent, and the slight movement and tidy finish past Marek Stech in the first-half was top class. It also must be noted Maguire’s positioning in the move - he switched flanks and occupied the deepest player of Luton’s midfield diamond, in turn opening up space for Maja to drop off and dummy the central defender with a fine run.
Although Bryan Oviedo didn’t have an outstanding, match-wining game like last week, he performed well and it must be noted his inclusion allowed Maguire to be pushed alongside Maja, thanks to the Costa Rican’s pace, hard-work and genuine quality and being able to marshal out left-hand side essentially on his own at times.
The whole team play for Maja's goal really is brilliant; the movement, interplay and nice one-two's along with Ross' tactics paying off by pushing Maguire centrally to occupy their defence.— James Nickels (@JamesNickels) August 13, 2018
But also note Max Power at the very start directing Mumba. Without, we don't score. pic.twitter.com/aiJcuYiKGx
In the second half, Luton pushed Pelly Ruddock further forward and he really controlled proceedings for much of the game. At this point, Mumba was out of the game and Power tiring, so Ross introduced Lee Cattermole to try and stem Ruddock’s influence. More on that later.
Although Maja played well it would've been great to have had Charlie Wyke fit on the bench. Luton are a side full of momentum after promotion, with a settled line-up and a smart manager. As such, during spells in the second-half they really pinned us back with some smart wing-play and physical football. Wyke could have been able to simply trap the ball high up the pitch, keep possession and thus in-turn drag the whole side 15-20 yards away from our own penalty area and alleviate pressure on the defence.
On the defence, Jack Baldwin really impressed me on his debut. Aside from adding much more balance at the back, he is decent on the ball and relatively pacey - alike to Flanagan. I think we have seen the last of the Loovens/Öztürk partnership for the forseeable, and the order and position of our four central defenders really is quite clear to see. Baldwin most impressed me with his reading of the game and anticipation.
Luton’s front two - Danny Hylton and James Collins - are proper, old-school strikers and very experienced in this division, yet Baldwin didn’t even try to out-muscle them but simply out-think their play. On the majority of occasions he made a clearance due to his fast thinking and ability to read the game well before his opponent.
This game wasn’t really a tactical masterclass from either manager, but a real attritional battle between two solid and evidently talented sides. I really expect both us and Luton to be in the top six at least come the end of the season.
Verdict: I liked Ross’ deployment of Maguire as a narrow inside forward, Luton’s midfield diamond was likewise narrow and he found a way to support Maja without making a sacrifice elsewhere.
Substitutions - Ross’ first mistake?
Two of the subs were very late in the game as the two Luke’s (Molyneux and O’Nien) came on for Gooch and Maja respectively. Although I wasn’t sure about replacing either, there was less than ten minutes to go and they were visibly fatigued. As such, I’d like to focus on the first replacement in the game; replacing Bali Mumba with Lee Cattermole on the hour mark.
Firstly, it is clear to see why Ross made the change; Luton began to dominate the midfield with Ruddock pushed forward and Mumba himself lagged slightly and in theory Cattermole’s appearance should shore this up. Three years ago, this sub would have likely worked a treat, but not in 2018. Catts simply cannot keep up with the pace and physicality of the modern game at this level. He made a few nice passes but spent most of the afternoon chasing shadows.
Arguably this is Ross’ mistake, and the first he’s made at Sunderland. I myself questioned why Mumba wasn’t replaced by O’Nien from the away end on Saturday afternoon, but O’Nien’s late appearance out wide maybe infers Ross just doesn’t trust him in midfield in the absolute short term until he adjusts to the lifestyle change of swapping your parent’s house in Wycombe for Sunderland.
Cattermole received a lot of criticism on social media and beyond for Matty Pearson’s goal in the second-half, but I do not think he stands alone for criticism. Glenn Loovens was totally overpowered by Pearson and was left wrong-side by the time Cattermole even arrived on the scene. Granted his handball - which wasn’t given - and poor tackle/clearance/interception was pretty damn awful, but I think we might have to get used to this. Last season, 70% of goals scored in League One led directly from a set piece.
Verdict: Cattermole’s introduction was a mistake, but with a full-strength side would he even be any close in the first place?
Post-match Comments - Measured
By nature of the club we have to have an ambition to win every single game, but you won’t win every game no matter what club you are.
If you look at it as a starting point, win your home games and collect something on your travels you give yourself a right good chance of having a good season.
It has been a positive start from us. I don’t think we could have picked a tougher away game to start the season, their [Luton’s] first home game. They are a team on a high after winning promotion last season.
The game was as I expected it to be. The performance and effort levels from the players was good.
There was not a lot in the game, playing different systems. The pitch is pretty tight here, it negates what we are good at. We looked for that bit of quality and got it from Josh.
Having been in a winning position and reasonably comfortable second half we weren’t under that huge pressure, that is where the disappointment lies, being ahead and not seeing the game out from there.
Set pieces are going to be something we have to defend well all season, we weren’t cut open that much defensively we have been cut open very rarely.
It is well documented we have given up some in height and physicality too.
Overall we defended set pieces really well, so the manner of the goal added to the disappointment.
Once again, I can only find myself agreeing with Ross’ immediate post-match assessment.
Luton is a tough away game, and we unfortunately got the hardest time of the year to play them away from home. Yet two games in we sit unbeaten, with a run of “easier” games and plenty key players to come back from injury. So far, so good.
He is right, we defended set-pieces excellently, and barring one - hardly looked troubled. Unfortunately that one sailed right into the corner off the net via the inside of the post. Both goals we have concede came from a set piece, and aside from the first 25 minutes at Charlton, look hardly in danger.
Verdict: Aye he is right to highlight set pieces. Welcome to League One, eh?