Jack Ross made just the one change from the side that won one-nil at Blackpool on New Year’s Day. The only change being the suspended Lee Cattermole making way for Dylan McGeouch.
This meant Sunderland against lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Jon McLaughlin’s goal being protected by Luke O’Nien, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and Reece James. Max Power and Dylan McGeouch started in the middle of the park while Lynden Gooch and captain Aiden McGeady started out wide. Josh Maja and Charlie Wyke resumed their partnership up front.
Lee Bowyer made just two changes following his Charlton team’s two-one home win against Walsall. Chris Solley replaced Toby Stevenson at left back whilst Darren Pratley replaced Ben Reeves in midfield.
These two changes meant that the home side lined up in the 4-4-2 diamond formation which they used at the Stadium of Light in August.
Dillon Phillips started in goal, protected by a back four of Anfernee Dijksteel, Patrick Bauer, Mouhamadou-Naby Sarr and Chris Solly. Arsenal loanee Krystian Bielik stared as the midfield anchor, with Albie Morgan and Darren Pratley just in front of him. Tarique Fosu started in the hole behind the two strikers Lyle Taylor and Karlan Grant.
The first half - a perfect away performance
When Luke O’Nien’s volley flew into the top corner just two minutes into the game, many Sunderland fans would have been forgiven for expecting their team to go on and gain a comfortable victory against a promotion rival. However, as should be expected, the home side were made of sterner stuff, and this is something which Jack Ross respected because for the remaining forty-odd minutes of the first half, Sunderland played the typical role of an away team.
Now, since Sunderland failed to gain all three points, this could be seen as a mistake. However, in the first half this plan worked almost perfectly. For all that Charlton looked threatening through their two pacey strikers, they failed to create any real chances in the first 45.
Sunderland on the other hand - sitting in a compact 4-4-2 formation and waiting to pounce on any loose passes and touches by the home side - had three decent chances, two through Charlie Wyke, and the other when Lynden Gooch hit the bar.
Overlapping fullbacks underused
Sunderland’s goal came from a cross by Reece James - Sunderland’s left back - and was finished by the opposite full back Luke O’Nien - this is no coincidence due to the narrow formation used by Charlton.
Whilst the 4-4-2 diamond gave the home side superiority of numbers in the centre of the park, it gains this by conceding the wide areas to the opposition. In the narrow formation there is no obvious candidate to mark an overlapping fullback, and this is the main reason why O’Nien was completely unmarked at the back post.
However, instead of constantly using this advantage, Sunderland - and Lynden Gooch especially - underused the overlapping runs of the wide defenders and opted to go it alone instead, something which often ended up with the Sunderland winger running into trouble as Charlton’s main defensive strength was in the middle.
A criticism of Sunderland’s American winger for a few weeks now has been that he holds onto the ball for too long, and I believe that this is a fair criticism and at The Valley on Saturday. This was highlighted even more by the amount of space Luke O’Nien was in as Gooch ignored his run time and time again.
Earlier in the season Gooch may have been forgiven, since even if the ball was in wide positions there was no real presence to aim for in the box, but since Charlie Wyke has returned from injury there is no excuse to not get the ball wide whenever the opportunity arises.
Were the substitutions made too late?
For all Sunderland’s good work in the first half, Charlton completely dominated the early exchanges of the second - and their equaliser was deserved. In truth it wasn’t until the introduction of Watmore, after 67 minutes for the disappointing Gooch, that Sunderland started to look threatening again.
Even once Watmore had been introduced the game continued to be an end-to-end affair with Lyle Taylor in particular causing Sunderland problems at the back. Sunderland struggled to take control of the game with their two forwards tiring which led to a lack of pressing from the front which was a vital part of Sunderland’s good work in the first half.
However, this changed once Chris Maguire replaced Josh Maja after 84 minutes and from this moment on Sunderland were the only team who looked like scoring a winner - their best chance falling to Watmore who scooped the ball over the bar.
The fact that these subs changed the tide of the game into Sunderland’s favour begs the question as to why they weren’t brought on earlier. The withdrawal of Gooch was overdue, and I can find no reason why Jack Ross waited so long before bringing on Watmore.
However, Jack Ross’ hesitation to bring off top scorer Maja is certainly understandable as it is completely logical to want your best finisher on the pitch when in search of a winning goal. Ff course, the way the game changed once Maja went off hints that this delay was a mistake, but at least there is an obvious logic behind the manager’s decisions something which cannot be said for those of messrs Coleman, Grayson and Moyes.