Sunderland manager Jack Ross made three changes following his side’s one-all draw at home to Luton Town last Saturday. New loan signing Jimmy Dunne replaced Jack Baldwin, Lee Cattermole returned from suspension to replace Dylan McGeouch and Josh Maja was back from illness to replace Charlie Wyke.
These changes meant the away side lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Jon McLaughlin continued to be ever present in goal, with Luke O’Nien, Tom Flanagan, Dunne and Reece James making up the back four. Max Power was Cattermole’s partner in the middle of the pitch, with the attacking trio of Lynden Gooch, Chris Maguire and Aiden McGeady behind Maja.
Stuart McCall named an unchanged team following his Scunthorpe side’s two-one away win over Walsall.
The home side lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, a regular challenge faced by Sunderland over the past couple of weeks. Former Newcastle United man Jak Alnwick started in goal, protected by the back four of Tony McMahon, Rory McArdle, Cameron Burgess and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson. Levi Sutton started in front of the defence, with James Perch to his right, and Funso Ojo to his left. George Thomas started behind Lee Novak and Kyle Wooton.
Time for three at the back?
New signing Jimmy Dunne made his debut at Glanford Park, and what struck me was the physical presence he adds to the side. Standing at 6ft 3in, the former Manchester United youth product has a good pedigree in the game and his presence, along with Flanagan and Baldwin, means Sunderland look rather strong in the centre of defence.
Further up the pitch, Sunderland’s main attacking threats are actually coming from full back, as several of our attacking midfielders - Maguire and Gooch in particular - seem to be encountering a poor run of form at the same time.
Sunderland clearly don’t have any difficulties in keeping possession of the ball - they enjoyed 54% possession in the game against Scunthorpe - but the difficulty is in turning this possession into shots on goal. Despite their lion’s share of possession, Ross’ men managed only two shots on target during the entire game. The easiest way to change this is to push more players further up the pitch, and with three at the back this would mean up to five players could be in the final third at any one time.
Whilst on paper a three at the back formation actually looks more defensive than the current 4-2-3-1 formation Sunderland are using, the extra centre back allows both wing backs to advance up the pitch at the same time - something which would make it much easier for Sunderland to stretch the pitch.
This use of width is something Sunderland have used to great effect, even recently - where Sunderland’s last five league goals have come from crosses into the box. This tactic clearly works, and Jack Ross could well be looking at a tactical system that allows his side to get the ball into wide areas in the final third as often as possible.
O’Nien should move further forward
Ever since George Honeyman has dropped out of the side due to injury, Sunderland have looked rather toothless in attack. In my opinion, this is no coincidence as Sunderland simply haven’t replaced their captain with a similar type of player - instead choosing to play Chris Maguire in a more central position, or play with a 4-4-2.
Part of the reason why Sunderland had to look for alternative types of player to replace Honeyman is because the most similar player, Luke O’Nien, has been excellent at right back - and whilst Adam Matthews was injured he was somewhat stuck in that position.
However, now the impressive Welshman is back in the squad, it may be the time to give the former Wycombe man a go in his more natural ‘number ten’ position.
O’Nien has bundles of energy, and his eye for a goal is not too dissimilar to the George Honeyman who scored eight championship goals last term. More importantly, however, is that O’Nien’s inclusion further forward would provide a link between Sunderland’s defensive midfielders and their attacking players - a link which has been absent with four out-and-out attackers playing in the same side.
Honeyman will hopefully be back for the next league game at the start of February, but the upcoming Checkatrade tie in midweek could be the perfect time to show the Sunderland captain that, in the shape of Luke O’Nien, he has some real competition for his place once he returns to full fitness.
We must keep Josh Maja
I touched upon it earlier how Sunderland have struggled to create clear chances - we rank 17th in league one for chances created - and recent results would have been infinitely worse had it not been for the clinical nature of teenage striker Josh Maja.
Of course, in typical Sunderland fashion, the player we rely on the most is the man who looks most likely to leave the club, but in my opinion Saturday was another example of why Stewart Donald must seriously consider just giving him and his agent whatever it will take to keep the former Manchester City youth player at the Stadium of Light - at least until the end of the season.
Whilst the club’s interest in Will Grigg (who picked up a nasty injury this past weekend) seems genuine, his addition would be treated as a replacement for the recently departed Sinclair; finding another striker with the quality of Sunderland’s number twenty will be no easy task - if not simply impossible.
And while the likes of Grigg and Reading’s Marc McNulty among others are certainly what you would label as League One level strikers, Josh Maja’s play in and around the box is Championship level at the very least - and that is why trying to replace him whilst we are in League One could be fatal, and why he must stay.
Stats from InStat