Team Selection - Forced but expected
First of all, just how good was Saturday? This was the fresh start we’ve all been waiting years for. The pain of being precariously perched on a rickety flight of stairs at Portman Road watching academy graduate Martyn Waghorn defeat eleven players almost unrecognisable either in red and white or to each other was immediately banished, as Lynden Gooch scored through sheer willpower (and a brilliantly guided diving header) to send Wearside into ecstasy.
I’ve probably already watched this video about 300 times, and will most certainly have it on repeat for the rest of this week.
But onto the team selection. Jack Ross’ first competitive Sunderland match was largely as expected, barring one big surprise. 16-year-old Bali Mumba was given his full competitive debut due to injuries to Dylan McGeouch and Ethan Robson.
In truth, Ross had few options to choose from due to seven injuries to first team players. The aforementioned McGeouch and Robson missed out, as did Charlie Wyke, Aiden McGeady, Reece James, Tom Flanagan and long-term absentee Duncan Watmore.
Selection headaches involved who would start in defence, with Alim Öztürk and Donald Love selected ahead of new signing Jack Baldwin and the returning Bryan Oviedo. The Costa Rican left-back has only been back in training for 10 days after being given an extended off-season due to his World Cup participation, but still possesses obvious quality and may have went straight in. Öztürk has started every game he has been fit for so far during pre-season, so is seemingly Ross’ preferred partner for Glenn Loovens.
The formation and personnel were generally the right choice, despite the tepid and stunted first-half performance. Why change what wasn’t broke throughout the whole of pre-season? Maybe he did need a different formation - due to the sheer number of injuries, which caused a few deficiencies in the side - but it is always easier to deem that in hindsight.
Verdict: Due to injuries and lack of match action for some new signings and returning players, Ross was generally forced into the opening selection.
It is promising to see the fresh start punctuated by four academy graduates starting and many symbols of past mistakes uninvolved completely.
Tactics - Proactive and Positive
For the first time in a long time it was wholly refreshing to see our manager be pro-active in his tactical analysis and decision-making within games, as opposed to reactive at best.
At half-time the Scot recognised we were short of numbers and directness in attack, overloaded in midfield and defensively ran ragged by the sheer pace of Lyle Taylor and Karlan Ahearne-Grant.
Instead of sending out an unchanged side, Ross took off Luke O’Nien in favour of Jerome Sinclair. The on-loan Watford man joined Josh Maja in attack, while Adam Matthews dropped deep into a back-three and Lynden Gooch moved out wide into a wing-back role. These changes completely changed the game, countering Charlton’s press and essentially making their midfield diamond ineffective by overloading the central areas of the pitch.
In return, Addicks’ manager Lee Bowyer also changed to a back-three late-on, despite admitting post-match that they hadn’t worked on the formation whatsoever.
This was clear - soon after, Josh Maja equalised thanks to lapses in concentration in the back-three. No longer were they a cohesive unit but instead were dragged way out of position vertically.
Maguire and Sinclair played differing roles in attack; the former would create from deep and look to dictate play high up the pitch, whilst Maja was the fulcrum and tasked to battle Bauer and Pearce in Charlton’s defence. Sinclair kept attempting to push beyond their last man.
The Charlton back-line was stretched, and thanks to Ross’ tactical intervention and Bowyer’s inability to respond, the win was in sight.
Of course, nothing is a given. The players must be given tremendous credit for not losing their heads amidst the tension of an opening day, frustration over the draw and at Charlton’s constant time-wasting.
They continued to knock at the door before Lynden Gooch’s diving header blew it down in the 96th minute. Gooch was excellent as a wing-back, and moving him out wide into this role - pushed very high - essentially stopped Charlton’s attacking intent in the game. Charlton basically sat on their 18-yard line for large swathes of the second-half, so it remains to be seen how Gooch would do as a wing-back over 90 minutes away to a promotion rival - Luton next week, for example.
Verdict: Excellent from Ross. It was a hugely brave decision from him in his first ‘proper’ game in charge, but he got it absolutely right. If he didn't proactively change the system to adapt to Charlton’s style so early, we may have not grabbed that last-gasp winner.
Substitutions - Important
Although two of our substitutions were forced, the introduction of Sinclair and Oviedo was vitally as important as the formation change. We were immediately given more depth, width and directness with the pair, as Sinclair played a vital role in occupying Charlton skipper Jason Pearce so that Josh Maja could battle it out with Bauer.
Sinclair is a little sketchy in terms of technique; the odd misplaced pass was poor and he should’ve buried his chance from Oviedo’s low delivery early in the second-half. However, his sheer pace, strength and direct running style will be an asset throughout the season - he’ll be a key replacement for the now-departed Joel Asoro.
Both Sinclair himself and Don Love unfortunately left the field through injury, but Luke O’Nien was the only unforced change. He was the man sacrificed at half-time, and although he was fairly tidy he looked over-awed by the occasion.
You’d expect 16-year old Bali Mumba to be the one looking slightly like a deer-in-headlights, but it was in fact O’Nien. He does have ability, however, and his energy and stamina are important assets - but the step-up to playing in a stadium of the size of the Stadium of Light and at this level for the first time is a big one.
I’ve no doubt he will react well, though. It’s fairly evident that O’Nien has a strong personality, and he’ll likely react to the sub by working even harder throughout the week in training. Luke Molyneux also featured late on, and looked lively.
Verdict: Mostly forced, but correctly made. Sinclair was a necessary addition, and hopefully his injury isn’t too serious.
Post-match comments - S.S.D.D.
That feeling of euphoria you get as the home club, players, staff, and supporters, it’s always enjoyable to do it in that manner.
It was a tough game, very competitive, but we kept pushing to get something out of the game and how physically strong we looked late in the match was very encouraging.
We will get better as a team.
There are a lot of players to come back, and we will learn from today about taking too many touches in a league where players are quick to close you down.
The positive side is that we showed a lot of character to come from a goal down, and strength and belief to go win a game which looked like it was heading for a draw.
The one thing today was that the supporters were incredibly positive with the players, as it would have been dead easy for them to turn or to not back us at 1-0 down, but they stuck with us and helped drive us on.
The noise in the stadium when we scored the goals was a great experience for me as a manager, and also for the players who should want to hear more of that.
Last season I equally waxed lyrical over Coleman’s charisma and Grayson’s irksome press conferences. With Stewart Donald constantly in communication with the fans, it has left Jack Ross to focus on the football. He has a stern exterior and gives very little away, but it is clear he got a little blown away and involved in the whole atmosphere and incredible 96th minute winner.
The key here is Ross and his players learning the style of League One. This will be our biggest test this season; how a backroom staff and squad not blessed with an abundance of third-tier experience react and adapt to the rigours of playing at this level every week.
League One is much faster and physical than many expected - despite these expectations being rather lofty in the first place. Officials are much more likely to allow a physical challenge to go than in the higher leagues, and although Charlton’s young and injury-plagued side ran out of steam in the end, their robust, pacey and high-pressing style is generally synonymous of the more successful sides in League One.
Ross deserves enormous credit for masterminding our first win on opening day since 2009 and our first after coming from behind since that Chelsea match back in 2016. We’d all heard from north of the border that he was tactically very astute, and this has already borne fruit. We’d almost have certainly lost this match a year - or even 3 months - ago.
Verdict: Calm from Ross. Clearly he enjoyed that, and nobody can begrudge him it.