Sunderland made three changes from the side that drew with Fleetwood Town last weekend. Bryan Oviedo returned after international duty and resumed his place at left back in place of Denver Hume. Charlie Wyke and Jerome Sinclair made their first league starts for the club as Chris Maguire dropped out due to his recent poor form, and Dylan McGeouch due to injury. Max Power was serving the second game of his suspension, but Aiden McGeady was fit enough to make the bench.
All this meant that Sunderland lined up in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation.
Jon McLaughlin continued in goal with Adam Matthews, Glenn Loovens, Jack Baldwin and Oviedo making up the back four. Lee Cattermole and captain George Honeyman operated in the centre of midfield as Lynden Gooch, Josh Maja and Sinclair were in support of Wyke who started alone up front.
Burton Albion also made changes from their last game, a one-all draw at Accrington Stanley. New goalkeeper Dimitar Evtimov replaced injured Chelsea loanee Brad Collins, Damien McCrory came in for Reece Hutchinson at left back and striker Liam Boyce came in for full back Ben Fox, with Lucas Akins dropping back to right back.
This meant that Burton lined up in a 4-3-3 formation. Evtimov was in goal as Akins, Kyle McFadzean, Ben Turner and McCrory completed the back five. Stephen Quinn started at the deepest midfielder with Jamie Allen and Scott Fraser just ahead of him. Marvin Sordell and David Templeton started wide in support of Liam Boyce - who scored the last time the two sides met.
Lack of width played straight into Burton’s hands
Despite lining up in their favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, the instructions given to the players within this system clearly differed from recent games. In most of the games this season Oviedo has provided the width on the left as the left winger tucks in, and on the other side Gooch plays as a more natural winger - the right back playing deeper. However, on Saturday, Gooch was also instructed to stay narrow.
Presumably Jack Ross was hoping that both Oviedo and Matthews would be able to overlap and give both width and four Sunderland players in the middle. However, because Sunderland struggled to keep hold of the ball, the full backs were unable to get forward and, as a result, Sunderland played very narrow. We kept hitting long balls in the general direction of Charlie Wyke - who had little joy against Burton’s two centre backs.
The lack of width was something I found strange as Sunderland have regularly struggled to keep possession early on in games; playing so narrow only made this more difficult and turned the game into a physical battle - something which Sunderland were guaranteed to lose.
Sunderland’s front four isolated
I noted after the Fleetwood game that Sunderland needed to find a way to replace Max Power’s link up play between the lines of midfield. One solution I suggested Jack Ross should use was to move George Honeyman into a deeper role - and following the injury of Dylan McGeouch, this is what happened.
Unfortunately for Sunderland the problem remained and Honeyman - despite being a natural number 10 - remained far too deep leaving Sunderland’s front four isolated whist also contributing to Sunderland’s poor ball retention during the first half. This did improve in the second half, though, as Cattermole operated as an anchor which gave Honeyman license to move forward more frequently.
Another reason why Sunderland’s four forwards were isolated is because none of them were able to come deep and get the ball. This is probably due to Jack Ross’ decision to operate with three natural strikers in this front four, and it is no surprise that this improved when Chris Maguire came on for the injured Charlie Wyke. Maguire’s performance was similar to on the first day of the season when he took the game by the scruff of the neck and tried to make something happen - something which was shown by his goal after he took on a shot from outside the box.
Whilst Jack Ross must take responsibility for the poor tactics, he will also be disappointed that, in the first half, no Sunderland player took it upon himself to drag the team back into the game.
We STILL can’t defend set pieces
To be honest, I’m sick of writing about Sunderland’s inability to defend set pieces, but I couldn’t ignore Burton’s second goal.
Everyone knows that Sunderland are probably one of the least physical sides in the league, but that is no excuse for leaving one of Burton’s centre backs completely unmarked twelve yards out. McFadzean could have been 5”1’ and he would have scored after being given a free header from that distance.
The issue is with every week that passes where Sunderland concede from a set piece the more questions will be asked about why this situation has not been addressed eight games into the season.
Questions must also be asked of Sunderland’s more experienced players, and why they are not making sure that everyone is organised and alert on set pieces. Getting beaten by someone who is stronger and better in the air than you is excusable, but failing to get in a position to compete is not.
To say this defeat was coming would be an understatement - Sunderland need to realise that they need to earn the right to play football against sides who have the physical advantage over them.
Sunderland clearly have more quality, but in recent weeks we have gone a goal down before we could show this - the challenge for Jack Ross and his players is to make sure they can keep possession from the start and stop our opponents from asserting their physicality on the game.
Whilst the defeat against Burton is disappointing, it is important for players and supporters alike to remain positive.
Sunderland have only lost one game and, in the long run, it may be just what we have needed. Performances in recent weeks have dropped off and this may be the shot in the arm that Sunderland need to start producing the fast-paced, high-octane, attacking performances that we enjoyed a few times in the early weeks of the season.