Sunderland manager Jack Ross made two changes following his side’s 1-0 win at home to AFC Wimbledon last Saturday. Jack Baldwin replaced Tom Flanagan at centre back, and Will Grigg made his debut in place of Charlie Wyke.
Sunderland also changed formation, going with a 4-3-3 instead of their usual 4-2-3-1. Jon McLaughlin was again our best player in goal, with Adam Matthews, Jack Baldwin, goalscorer Jimmy Dunne, and Reece James making up the back four.
Grant Leadbitter started in holding midfield, with George Honeyman and Max Power just in front of him. Lewis Morgan started on the right with Aiden McGeady on the left, and Will Grigg up front.
Oxford United manager Karl Robinson made just the solitary change following his side’s goalless draw at Burton Albion last weekend. Former Sunderland loanee Jerome Sinclair was replaced by Jamie Mackie up front.
The home side lined up in Sunderland’s usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Simon Eastwood started in goal, with Jamie Hanson, Curtis Nelson, Robbie Dickie and Josh Ruffles completing the back five. John Mousinho and Cameron Brannagan started in central midfield, with the trio of Gavin Whyte, James Henry and Jordan Graham behind lone striker Jamie Mackie.
Game plan and team selection didn’t align
Sunderland once again looked to build attacks through long balls from deep, but it has been clear for some weeks now that this tactic is not working.
This is shown by the extremely low passing accuracy of the two central defenders. Jimmy Dunne was successful with a measly 55% of his passes, and Baldwin with only 51%. Putting this into perspective, Oxford’s central defensive pairing of Nelson and Dickie managed to complete 63% and 84% of their passes respectively.
At the moment, Sunderland seem to be stuck between two styles of football, and it’s imperative that Jack Ross decides on which route he wishes to go down.
If he decides to play a direct style then it is important to employ a formation and players which suit this style of play. So-called long ball football - in my opinion - requires us to deploy two up front, one of these should be a target man, so Charlie Wyke must start.
The need for two up top gives Ross a couple of options in terms of his formation - mainly a 5-3-2 or a 4-4-2. Considering the fact that Aiden McGeady contributes so many goals it makes sense to keep him in the side and go with the latter. After Wyke came on Jack Ross switched to this formation, moving Honeyman out wide right where he had plenty of success at the start of last season.
The alternative to this plan is for Sunderland to return to a less direct, more short passing game akin to the one we saw at the start of the year.
If we play in this way it is entirely possible that the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations we have been using recently could be effective, both in attack and defense.
What Jack Ross cannot do is persist with a formation, style of play and team selection that do not match up and result in disjointed performances.
Both fullbacks poor, and unsuited to their roles
After his proposed loan move to West Brom on transfer deadline day, Bryan Oviedo has been nowhere to be seen, but Jack Ross could do much worse than recall a player who would probably walk into every other side in the division.
Reece James was poor at the Kassam Stadium, though even at his best he tends to be solid in defence without offering a genuine attacking threat - in short, the opposite of the Costa Rican international.
On the other flank, Adam Matthews has struggled to rediscover the good form he was in before his injury, putting in another sub-par performance against Oxford.
I believe it to be no coincidence that the Welshman’s best performances in a Sunderland shirt have been when playing behind Gooch, who hugged the touchline and allowed Matthews to drift into an inverted position where his lack of blistering pace is not evident, and his short passing abilities are on show.
When Matthews returned to fitness many presumed his return would allow Luke O’Nien to be moved back to his favoured midfield position, but since Jack Ross seems to prefer other options in that position, Luke O’Nien has every right to feel aggrieved that he lost his place at right back
With Sunderland struggle to break teams down, any chance to add players with quality in forward areas should be welcomed, and leaving O’Nien and Oviedo out of the starting eleven seems like a waste.
Sunderland paid the price for chasing the game - even at one-nil up
Much has been made of Sunderland’s inability to score more than one goal in a game - with a 2-1 win at home to Bristol Rovers on the 15th December being the last time they managed to win a game by more than one goal - and Oxford’s late equaliser perhaps showed that this may be starting to impact the players.
I agree that something must be done to improve the side’s ability to score multiple goals in a game, but when a team of any level, be it Barcelona or Barnet, is a goal up away from home with less than five minutes left they should be focused on retaining that lead, rather than risk conceding when trying to add to it.
What makes it worse is that Sunderland actually had a warning that this was going to happen just a few minutes prior to the goal - Reece James being forced to put the ball into touch after Oxford cleared a Sunderland free kick upfield.
To be left two-on-two from a hopeful clearance up field is inexcusable in any situation, but when trying to hold a lead there is no reason for full backs and holding midfielders to be caught up field.
This, not the referee or his officials, is why Sunderland conceded the late equaliser.
All stats courtesy of InStat.