Perhaps the most striking thing about last Wednesday night’s game away at Gillingham was how comfortable our players were in possession. At times the Gillingham players were chasing shadows to olés from the crowd - it has been a long time since any of us have seen a Sunderland side stroke the ball around the pitch with such a swagger.
A big part of this was down to the confidence of our defenders on the ball, most noticeably Jack Baldwin - and I’ve been really impressed with the 25-year old’s performances since he’s come into the team.
The former Hartlepool United man has shown he is the ideal mix of fearless off the ball and thoughtful on it. The Gillingham game was the first game I’d seen him play live and, despite our prolific front-line playing out of their skin, it was Baldwin who was my man of the match.
He was hard as nails when we were backs to the wall at the start of the second half and ridiculously composed when he got a chance to put his foot on the ball.
There was a point in the second half where Baldwin was on the floor but still threw his head to try to stop a Tom Eaves strike which hit the bar. Then, barely a minute later, he faked a cross-field pass, dummied Eaves, and played an incisive pass to Max Power on the half-turn.
Baldwin’s style of play from the back suits Jack Ross’ asymmetrical 4-3-3 system perfectly. As James Nickels mentioned in his excellent tactical analysis earlier last week, our midfield were always on the move against Gillingham, creating triangles through which they could play around our opposition.
Jack Ross’ tactics rely on balls being fed into these midfield triangles at the best opportunity. Not since the days of Gus Poyet have I seen a Sunderland side recycle the ball so intelligently. If a centre-mid wasn’t on the half-turn for a ball to feet then our centre-backs simply kept the ball until the midfielders were in a position to do damage.
But tactics are only half the battle. The players themselves have to be brave to get on the ball and dictate the tempo. Baldwin exemplified our courage on the ball last Wednesday – recycling the ball where necessary and playing between the lines to Power, Cattermole and Honeyman when the opportunity arose. When we won a set-piece or a goal-kick, I watched him sprint out to the touchline to free himself up to receive the ball.
Not only that but he demanded the ball too. He wanted to be the one controlling the tempo of the game from the back. His ball-playing attributes are going to be a big plus for us this season both in terms of controlling possession and also when we are seeing out close games.
Of course it won’t always be plain-sailing for our defenders this season. Baldwin and Loovens’ battle with Tom Eaves in that Gillingham game showed that sometimes our central defenders will have their backs to the wall. But the two centre-backs have also developed a remarkably good understanding across a handful of games. Loovens tends to attack the first ball with Baldwin sweeping up behind him. And they split when McLaughlin has the ball in his hands or his feet to open up the space when we win the ball back.
It’s about time since we’ve had some luck with centre-backs. It was only two summers ago that David Moyes spent £8 million on Papy Djilobodji. That’s £8 million on someone who struggles to put one foot in front of the other let alone defend. In fact, just thinking about the list of shocking defenders we’ve suffered in past seasons is enough to drive a man to the edge: Billy Jones, Marc Wilson, and Andrea Dossena to name but a few.
Our potent attack is getting most of the praise. However, Jack Ross is quietly turning our defence into a formidable force, marshalled by our two new centre-backs, Jack Baldwin and Glenn Loovens.
Baldwin at just 25 years old promises to be a fixture in this new Sunderland side for many years to come. The ease at which he brings the ball out from the back at this level makes me confident he can make the next step up.
He is going to play a big part this season in getting us closer to where we belong, and I can’t wait to see him put in plenty more performances like the ones we’ve seen so far.