Jack Ross made four changes after Sunderland suffered their first league defeat of the season at Burton last weekend. Tom Flanagan came in for Adam Matthews at right back, with academy graduate Denver Hume replacing Bryan Oviedo on the other side. Chris Maguire returned to the starting eleven after scoring last weekend; Jerome Sinclair made way. With Charlie Wyke ruled out for nine-to-twelve weeks following an injury sustained at Burton, Dylan McGeouch returned to the side after a minor injury of his own.
These changes meant that Sunderland lined up in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation that becomes a 3-5-2 when attacking. Jon McLaughlin remained in goal with Tom Flanagan at right back (or right centre back in the back three), Glenn Loovens and Jack Baldwin at the heart of the defence and Denver Hume at left-wing back. Lee Cattermole and Dylan McGeouch played as a double pivote with George Honeyman further forward as a number 10. Lynden Gooch offered the width on the right in a position he has described as right-wing back. Chris Maguire started as the inside left forward with Josh Maja up front.
Rochdale were, unsurprisingly, unchanged following a three-nil victory at home to Gillingham in their last game. Josh Lillis started in goal with Joe Rafferty, Harrison McGahey, Ryan Delaney and Samuel Hart forming the back four. Callum Camps and Oliver Rathbone started alongside captain Ian Henderson - who scored his first career hat-trick last weekend. Calvin Andrew and Matthew Gillam started wide in support of veteran striker Aaron Wilbraham.
Sunderland’s width gave them the space to flourish
One of the main reasons Sunderland struggled to dominate the game last weekend was their lack of width. This is something they put right against Rochdale as Hume and Gooch remained wide to ensure the pitch was made as large as possible. This gave Sunderland’s creative central players, such as Dylan McGeouch and man of the match Chris Maguire, more time on the ball to pick a pass and to find space in dangerous areas.
Wide areas proved especially profitable for Sunderland as all three goals scored from open play were created from wide positions. Chris Maguire drifted towards the left wing before cutting back onto his right foot and whipping a ball onto the head of Josh Maja who made it one-nil. Maja’s second goal was also created from the left wing - Denver Hume cut the ball back to Maja who finished well on his weaker left foot. Finally, Lynden Gooch’s second goal of the game came after he received the ball on the right touchline before cutting in and shooting low into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.
Despite not being at the races for the entire game - Sunderland’s persistence in stretching the pitch using Gooch and Hume meant that the performance against Rochdale was a vast improvement and allowed their attacking players the freedom to produce moments of individual skill to create chances.
Tom Flanagan is a round peg in a round hole
Unlike Adam Matthews, Tom Flanagan has played both full back and centre back numerous times throughout his career, and this makes him perfect for the role of right-sided centre back in Jack Ross’ lopsided 3-5-2 system.
The right-sided defender is arguably one of the most important positions in Jack Ross’ system as he is expected to defend like a centre-back whilst also picking the right moments to support the players further forward - hence the confusion as to whether the formation is a 3-5-2 or 4-2-3-1.
The former Burton Albion utility man has the potential, and now the opportunity, to make the position his own and from what we have seen of him so far, has all the attributes Jack Ross desires of his right-sided centre back.
Flanagan is comfortable on the ball, has more than adequate pace for a defender and has the height required to avoid being beaten in the air by opposition strikers. But, perhaps most importantly, Flanagan also adds some League One experience to the side after he was part of the Burton side promoted in 2016.
Flanagan’s solid performance against Rochdale only adds to the feeling that he is the right man for this position and he also gives the bonus of extra height to a Sunderland side which is one of the least physical in League One.
After defeat last weekend it was vital that Sunderland responded with a positive result and performance in front of the home fans. Thankfully they delivered and showed some of the impressive impressive attacking play that we haven’t seen for a few weeks.
Now it is important that Sunderland don’t fall back into old habits and make it back-to-back victories by putting in another quality performance at Coventry next weekend.