Jack Ross made three changes to the side which drew last weekend at home to Fleetwood Town, with Bryan Oviedo, Jerome Sinclair and Charlie Wyke respectively replacing Denver Hume, Chris Maguire and the injured Dylan McGeouch.
As a result, we saw a definitive change in formation for the first time in a league game, as Ross lined the lads up in an attacking, narrow 4-2-2-2. George Honeyman dropped deep to partner Lee Cattermole in midfield while Sinclair operated on the left-hand side as an inside forward.
Many fans were excited to see such an attacking line-up in the pre-game fervour, myself included, but maybe we just got swept up in the excitement of seeing all three strikers starting alongside each other in attack.
Despite our asymmetric formation, ironically one of the greatest assets the side has featured early in the campaign has been balance. No matter if Maguire started as a genuine left-winger or the more regular role playing in-between the lines, we always looked much more balanced and natural than we’ve seen in a few years from any Sunderland side.
However, that was all lost on Saturday. Jerome Sinclair struggled in his role on the left - he is much more of a physical player, and seemingly relies upon his strength and pace to carve open opportunities. However, due to his narrow deployment, he often found himself running away from the channels and into an incredibly congested central third of the pitch. Lynden Gooch, positioned on the opposite flank, also played very narrow, and this just did not suit his game.
Charlie Wyke’s inclusion makes sense, as his physicality, aerial prowess and sheer presence alongside Josh Maja allows for the Lads to have a wholly new, League One-styled dimension. However, whenever he is on the pitch the defence constantly skip the midfield and always go for the direct ball. Wyke is excellent with his back to goal, but I am unsure if he is quite the sort of target man to constantly challenge aerial, direct balls (granted, he is also far, far from match fitness).
Bryan Oviedo is simply a de-facto better footballer than Denver Hume, but the youngster can feel aggrieved to have lost his place to the Costa Rican - himself travelling to and from Chile in the past three days for international football.
In short, there were issues all over with the team selection from the start. Ross simply got it wrong on the day, but hopefully he will learn from it - and may even be forced to do so due to the injury Charlie Wyke picked up in the first-half, and the timely return of Aiden McGeady.
Verdict: Ross messed this one up, but it is always easy to say in hindsight, and he will definitely learn both the league and how to operate as a young manager after every game.
Nigel Clough has lined the Brewers up in a very rigid 4-4-2 formation nearly all-season long, with Marvin Sordell usually partnering Liam Boyce in attack. However, he switched it up at the weekend.
Sordell dropped off to the right-hand side as Boyce operated as the lone man in a 4-3-3. Clough introduced a third midfielder and they overran Cattermole and Honeyman for the majority of the first half, when both goals were conceded.
Maybe part of the service issue to Wyke and Maja was due to this. The defence were - in part - forced to go long by Burton’s high press and our total lack of midfield presence.
It is too hard to criticise Ross here, to be fair. He hardly has a crystal ball and this Burton side has never lined-up neither in thus formation nor with this personnel at all this season. I’d wager it would have been a very different game had Clough not switched personnel - likely himself in fear of being outnumbered in midfield.
Speaking of which, Max Power is absolutely vital to the team. I still believe his red card was harsh, and is essentially a five-game ban (due to the three league games, ludicrous Checkatrade debacle and the fact he was sent off so early in the Oxford game).
Power is the only real box-to-box, traditional central midfielder in the side who has both a presence and uncanny knack to be in the right place at the right time. While not physically massive, he is imposing and has a strong core, so is difficult to get off the ball.
Tactically we have dominated sides at times, but not over a full 90 barring Scunthorpe. We are a young, quite naive team and need to improve our cohesion and game management quick if we are to find ways to overcome the lack of physicality running throughout the side.
Speaking of which, a lot of the errors and mistakes on show on Saturday can be fixed with time - through players individually improving their match fitness and the team getting to know each others’ style of play - but our defending of set pieces and crosses into the box cannot.
Six of the eight goals conceded have resulted directly from set pieces, while the other two due to crosses pumped into the box (be it form a direct shot or taking advantage of a knockdown as on Saturday). This simply cannot continue.
A few have suggested buying huge players in January is the only solution, but that is not the case. Football, tactics and especially set pieces are much more nuanced.
Too often on defensive set pieces players left unmarked, with Sunderland players failing to carrying out both their individual roles and as a unit. Burton’s second was a simple free header, and the Lads need to concentrate much more efficiently in future.
Verdict: Ross got the tactics wrong, but redeemed himself later on. However, how can any manager effectively prepare for such a curveball from his opposition number and cannot be at fault for sloppy defensive mistakes.
I’ve criticised Ross for getting it wrong from the outset, but it must be said he changed the game with the introduction of Maguire and McGeady in quick succession. The pair possess quality quite clearly of a level higher, and they interlinked very well in the goal and our best chances came from them.
McGeady naturally and expectantly faded late on, as four months without neither football nor training took it’s toll, but the future could be exciting with these two playing together in League One. They have a natural understanding and are known to be close off the pitch as well as on it.
This brings me to question George Honeyman. After the Prudhoe-born academy product was announced as captain, I rejoiced. I still stand by my opinion there is no character better suited to be our captain right now than Honeyman. I also enjoy his tireless work-rate and effective vertical running.
However, I simply cannot budge the nagging feeling that no matter where George lines up in the side, there are simply better options in those positions. Maguire at CAM, McGeady on the LW, Gooch on the right and any two of Cattermole, McGeouch and Power in midfield. Maybe it is a catch 22 situation borne from his own versatility, but maybe he would be a stronger and more effective option off the bench late in games to provide a real impetus to tiring legs.
The last sub was Luke O’Nien replacing Glenn Loovens, as Cattermole dropped back to central defence.
Firstly, on Catts. It’s clear by the last ten minutes the home side offered almost zero attacking threat and were happy to simply sit back and defend their lead, so dropping Catts deep in theory would present minimal risk while allowing a further phase of control of both territory and possession while on the ball.
However, I do hope this wasn’t a test for future reference and merely a one-time necessity. Catts was defensively all over the place (as you’d expect) when he dropped into the back four, and it seemed a bit of a damp squib considering O’Nien’s effect on the game.
We need to give the lad time to adjust to a massive shift in his life, but his slow progress is staggering. Late-on in the game, he took a heavy touch and switched play to the right, but his simple 20-yard pass was miles behind Adam Matthews and simply sailed out of play. It is harsh to put the lad under a microscope, but it seems somewhat of a microcosm of his time here.
He seems a bit out of his depth and scared of his own shadow, but I think he will come good in the long-term with some close coaching.
Verdict: Catts at CB was odd, but the other two subs were well-timed and turned the game on its head. I really like how he reads situations mid-game and isn’t afraid to change it. Let’s just get it right from the start too.
What we have to do is make sure that we don’t let our mentality turn back to feeling sorry for ourselves and saying ‘here we go again’. That’s happened too much at this club in recent seasons.
I believed going into the weekend that, given the other fixtures, if we won today it would put us in a really good position, so it makes it even more frustrating for us.
We are still in an OK position but the question is where do we want to go? Do we accept that as being OK and we’re happy with it? Certainly not from my point of view, that’s not why I came to the club.
We need to keep going and make sure that when we have days like today - and it wasn’t a good day for us - that we don’t buckle.
The first half performance was one that we know, if we replicate that, we won’t win many football matches at any level of the game. That was reflected in the scoreline at half-time, and I had no qualms with that scoreline whatsoever - they were streets ahead of us.
Our reaction to falling behind was not good and we wanted half-time to come.
We managed to get ourselves back into the game a little bit in the second half, but it’s a really tough ask to get something from the game when you’re two goals behind. At least in the second half we looked like we had an interest in the game, because the first half was way below the standard we need to be at.
As the manager, I’m responsible because it is my team selection, my preparation, so regardless of how good or bad a performance is, it should always fall upon my shoulders to try and rectify these issues. We do a huge amount of work on set-pieces but it doesn’t always guarantee success or that certain things will happen.
The important thing is that we don’t lay the blame at the door of the players, because the responsibility is with me to hammer home that message and keep working on it. We did that, and we’ll do that again, and we’ll keep doing it, and doing it, and doing it, until we stop conceding.It becomes a cheap way of conceding goals.
It’s not an exact science. You try and work on things that cut down the possibilities of conceding and try to increase the chances of you scoring at the other end. That’s the work we do during the week, rather than leave it to pot luck. But even if you do that work, there’s no guarantee you will see the results out on the pitch.
Great words from Ross - and proper management. Unlike the firebrand, idiotic Di Canio, no manager should hang his players out to dry in the presser. He’s identified exactly the issue and discussed it in length.
Set pieces are unfortunately so much a lottery, and I am sure he doesn’t prepare for players to constantly leave their markers in acres of space in the middle of the box.
Verdict: This has been coming, and we deserve it. Hopefully we can use this to stop underestimating sides (as a team, club and fanbase) and kick these mistakes out. A loss was inevitable, and we’re still in a good position despite not playing too well.