Team Selection - S. S. D. D.
Last season I couldn’t take it anymore. Constant loss after loss, each featuring an inherently more inept performance than the week before, I had to stop doing the managerial analysis after every league match.
After only four games of the new season, a familiar problem (or advantage) has arrived - repetition.
Our performance on Wednesday evening was genuinely the first time in an age where we looked like scoring with every single attack. Whilst it was not as complete and as dominant as the first-half performance against Scunthorpe, the Black Cats easily cut through Gillingham’s defence and asserted their authority with the kind of swagger that only the very best sides in the league can display.
Ross set the Lads up in the same tactic and formation as at the weekend, with Chris Maguire once again given a free role in behind Josh Maja, while an asymetric back four and midfield three once again dominated.
The Scot, however, was forced into making two changes, with Adam Matthews and Bryan Oviedo both picking up knocks against a very physical Scunthorpe side at the weekend. They were replaced like-for-like, as Donald Love returned from injury at right-back while Reece James made his first start of the season on the left.
Going into the game, I had that foreboding, ominous feeling regarding Oviedo’s absence. Since coming into the team at half-time in the opening match, his important role is integral to how Ross set’s the side up - and I worried whether James has the defensive ability to deal with Maguire’s lack of width.
However, Reece James performed superbly and was not just an able deputant, but proved himself genuine competition for the Costa Rican. He impressed all night with his decent crossing, pace on the counter, and particularly - his defensive work. Numerous tackles and interceptions were both impeccably positioned and timed, one fantastic, hard tackle in particular even began the move for the fourth goal.
Ross was very much forced into his selection, but he deserves credit for bringing in James so willingly. It is evident why Ross favoured his signing over Scunthorpe left-back Cameron Borthwick-Jackson thanks to his attacking ability. However, the Scot’s job will get harder. Bodies are starting to return; Love and James started while Ethan Robson and Dylan McGeouch were back in the squad.
Verdict: S. S. D. D. Ross once again replaced well, aided by Don Love’s timely return from injury. That midfield double-pivot perfectly compliment each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Tactics - Clinical
Give me a second here, I may seem like I’m rambling at first. But this needs context.
Unfortunately I couldn’t make the game on Wednesday night due to work, so I had to make-do with the stream on the club’s official website. No commentary, no scoreboard, an off-centre camera and inability to see the near corners of the pitch were added drawbacks, but it soon turned out the former was a blessing in disguise.
Gone were the incessant ramblings of a middle-aged man who likely knows nothing about neither Sunderland nor Gillingham plastered all over the audio feed. As a result the players and coaches’ communication on the pitch was as clear as day. One interesting part I kept hearing when Sunderland were in possession was Lee Cattermole and Max Power’s constant talking, mentioning two key phrases; “move” and “triangles”.
It sounds simple, but that is exactly what I have been so impressed. Johan Cryuff once claimed to play simple football is in fact incredibly complex. Pep Guardiola responded once in an interview while at Barca saying that complex football done badly - which is usually is - becomes in fact a very simple and unsuccessful move. It is much more efficient to play the short ball and constantly move rather than hope for the complex phases of play to pull off.
Exponential growth is a mathematical theory, often applied by physicists to determine growth whose rate becomes ever more rapid in proportion to the growing total number or size. In terms of futurist theory, the hypothesis that the invention of artificial super-intelligence will abruptly trigger exponential technological growth, resulting in unfathomable change.
Sunderland are currently experiencing unrivaled exponential growth in their football mindfulness, and ability to understand the task at hand set by the backroom staff. Their own singularity (maximum potential) is far away yet, as even with the impressive start I feel the squad is only really operating at around 70-80% of their absolute potential.
Ross’ tactics on the face seem very simple, and are portrayed simply. The players are all on board and are developing at an exponential rate. In fact, these tactics are very complex and the whole backroom staff deserve the utmost credit and applause for the turnaround they are currently navigating.
Josh Maja is a perfect case in point. Fellow Roker Report writer Rory Fallow notified us that he is now the first Sunderland player to score in four consecutive games from the start of the season since Dave Halliday in 1927. His fourth of the season on Wednesday night came with a large slice of luck as James’ excellently driven ball cannoned off George Honeyman and into his path for an easy tap-in.
If Maja can make it four goals in the first four games, he'll be the first #SAFC player to do so since David Halliday in 1927. Halliday found the net in eight consecutive games at the beginning of 27/28, so Maja has quite a way to go if he wants to claim the overall record.— Rory Fallow (@RoryFallow) August 20, 2018
But he is developing at an incredible rate, compare how he played in the first twenty minutes of the Gillingham with the same period of time against Charlton.
Patrick Bauer and Jason Pearce dominated Maja in the opening game of the season. He couldn’t trap a ball with back-to-goal, lost nearly every single aerial duel and found space very hard to come by until Jerome Sinclair was introduced alongside him. Yet statistically, he only completed one dribble, won 11% of his aerial challenged and 21% of those on the ground (according to InStat). He still played well and grabbed a great, deserved goal.
On Tuesday he played against the twin behemoths of League One shithousery; Gabriel Zakuani and Max Ehmer. They are one of the biggest, strongest and most experienced partnerships at this level, yet Maja absolutely dominated them. He beat them with his back to goal and competing physically, countering from deep, playing in the spaces and by beating them with sheer technical ability.
If you had plucked someone like Tommy Wiseau and placed him in the Brian Moore Stand at Priestfield, and he’d probably have guess Maja was at least in his late 20s and had over 100 Football League goals to his name.
The same aforementioned stats here are incredible; 64 touches, 29 challenges (74% complete), 20 aerial challenges (45%) and 7 dribbles (100%).
Throughout the game, we were incredibly successful at winning the ball high up the pitch and hitting on the counter with pace, playing it through and around their defenders, and direct to Maja. It was all excellent in wholly differing types of play. Lynden Gooch epitomised this just after the third goal; winning it high, running at pace then playing a glorious 30-yard cross field ball to James at the opposite by-line.
In general, we were dominated by their physicality and direct style - all throughout Tom Eaves pulled off to the inside channel between Love and Glenn Loovens, isolating both, and then exploiting the inexperience of the former and lack of pace of the latter.
It was inevitable Gillingham would dominate the ball for spells - as they did for the last ten minutes of the first half and much of the latter stages. We flew out the traps and were away from home against a talented side with an in-form, complete striker in Eaves.
However, perception is often everything. Although they were dangerous going direct, we actually looked like scoring every time we entered their half. Gills payed well, but were tactically and technically outclassed by a superior side.
Verdict: Clinical. After twenty minutes we had three shots on goal, resulting in three on target and three goals. The confidence running through the side now is incredible.
Substitutions - Great game management
For once, Ross wasn’t forced into making a substitution by injury.
The first man introduced was Dylan McGeouch, who made a very welcome competitive debut after missing just under a month through a calf injury. He ticked the game over, provdied a great midfield outlet for ball retention and generally dictated matters after his introduction - but was naturally quiet and a little off the pace.
Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien replaced Love and Power around the 80 minute mark, to provide fresh legs late-on. They weren’t really on the pitch long enough to get involved, so here I will focus on why the three withdrawn players were replaced.
Chris Maguire ran himself into the ground. He quite literally chased down every ball, pressed their palyers and ran the channels all night, but he - in a very Steed Malbranque-esque style - often runs out of steam late on in games. The fresh legs were needed here. Likewise with Max Power, just before he was withdrawn he pressed wide left and literally fell over due to fatigue.
The Love sub, however, is purely excellent man management. As aforementioned, Love had endured a difficult game as 6’6 man mountain striker Eaves would cleverly peel off onto the Scottish defender in every attacking phase. At one point, just before his withdrawal, Eaves was free in behind as Love found himself on the wrong side of his man. Luckily, Reece James blocked the resulting cross. After this Love and Eaves had a coming together in which the Scot was lucky to get away without a caution. Ross immediately subbed him, not as a reprimand, but to protect his player.
Verdict: Tactical nous? Check. Personality? Check. Psychology? Check. Man-Management? Check. So far, it seems Ross has it all.
Post-match comments - Magnanimous
Adam picked a knock on Sunday and had to come off. He is progressing well and has travelled down with us and hopefully he will be available for Saturday.
Bryan got a knock towards the end of the game and he hasn’t recovered as well as we’d hoped so he hasn’t travelled at the moment, but there’s a chance that if he does a bit of training tomorrow, he might travel down Thursday evening.
We’ll see how he is tomorrow evening.
It asked a question of the squad but they responded really well. Donald [Love] had only trained one day and we had to throw him straight back in, so it is a testament to his attitude and condition that he was able to do that tonight.
In the grand scheme of things, the early equaliser was a pivotal moment.
I still believe we would have got back into it anyway, but the longer it takes and the more chances we need, the more it suits them.
They scored early but the reaction was perfect.
I can’t take any credit for that as the manager, it is the players who deserve the credit for that - it was their resilience and character that got us back into the game.
Gillingham have started the season well and they’re a good side.
I knew they would ask a lot of questions of us defensively, they play the ball forward quickly and they get really good support in those areas.
We had to deal with a lot and we rode our luck at times as well, but that is going to happen. Away from home, teams are going to view it as an opportunity to take a scalp but that goes with the territory of us being in this league.
It’s not so much the scoreline tonight, as proving that we are able to deal with the questions that were asked of us.
That was another big positive for us tonight because Dylan hasn’t done all that much with the group, even though his fitness levels are fine.
We gave him a go today, got him on the pitch for a decent chunk of time, and he helped us through the latter part of the game because he has good quality on the ball.
Sunderland were backed by more than 2,000 travelling fans at Priestfield - an incredible turnout for a midweek 600-mile round trip.
You want to be grateful without sounding patronising, but there is a genuine appreciation for it because it is an unbelievable commitment - there are very few clubs who could bring that number of fans that distance for an evening kick-off.
The great thing for me as a manager and for the players is that they were able to give them a reward, because there is no greater feeling than winning.
Those 2,000-plus will go home tonight on that long journey
happy and delighted.
It’s exciting and it’s enjoyable, and long may it continue.
Ross is absolutely spot on - it doesn’t matter how much preparation is done beforehand when you go behind so early, the mental fortitude and togetherness is all on the players themselves.
Verdict: I often just find myself nodding in agreeable to Ross’ interviews. A special word to those who travelled down to Kent to be in the away end - you’re the backbone of this club.