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Fan Letters: “Jack Ross should switch Sunderland’s system to a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield”

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RR reader Benjamin is discussing tactics, formations and systems - and has a theory for how Jack Ross might be able to change Sunderland’s ailing creativity on the pitch. Email us: RokerReport@Yahoo.co.uk - we’ll include your message in the next edition!

Fan Letters
Danny Roberts | Roker Report
Danny Roberts | Roker Report

Dear Roker Report,

After another drab performance against Blackpool, and ahead of our must-win clashes with Accrington and Gillingham, I’d like to throw in another idea of what Jack Ross should do: our formation should be 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield.

In recent weeks both Scunthorpe and Luton played against us using a diamond and I thought it was effective: both teams won the outnumbered us in midfield, consequently winning the midfield battle for long spells of each game, and when they attacked they got a decent number of men forward.

I think a 4-4-2 diamond would solve a lot of our current problems. Playing with one up front, as we have been doing, leaves the striker isolated. I cannot see why a team of our calibre, which should be dominating against most teams in this division, play with only one striker. Two up front is an absolute necessity.

Secondly, we have a problem linking midfield with attack. Our best player at linking the two is Honeyman (incidentally, in the Honeyman debate that has been occurring, I am firmly in the pro-Honeyman camp).

Therefore, surely we should be playing him where he will be the most effective, in the centre attacking midfield role, where he knows that his one and only job is to be the link between attack and midfield.

A diamond gives us the option of flexibility as well. Despite playing 4-2-3-1 for lots of games this season, too often I see us struggle to win the midfield battle. A Sunderland player is on the ball, looking for a pass.

Either everyone is already marked or there’s no-one near him. He either plays it wide to McGeady (who always slows the game down), pumps it long or passes back to a defender. This slows the tempo down to a snail’s pace, stifles our creativity and the fans start to get impatient and frustrated and get on the players backs a bit. A diamond would remedy this. Your right and left midfielders can either go wide or narrow (which was England’s tactic in 1966 when Sir Alf played a diamond, just saying).

Let’s say the opposition are in possession, piling men forward, and they go through the middle.

Our RM and LM can be picking up runners, getting tackles in or just generally getting Sunderland bodies in the middle of the park. If the opposition go wide, we have a formation that is flexible and fluid enough to adjust. The same goes for when we are in attack: do we go wide or through the middle? Our choice, depending on the moment; our formation can accommodate either.

I’ve also plumped for a diamond because it gets the best out of our resources. With this formation we have multiple options in every position, which means competition for places and Ross can rotate his squad to cope with a glut of fixtures. I’ve shown below who I think ought to be first choice/second choice/third choice in each position.

GK: McLaughlin/Ruiter

RB: Matthews/O’Nien/Love

CB: Baldwin/Flanagan/Dunne/Ozturk/Loovens

CB: Baldwin/Flanagan/Dunne/Ozturk/Loovens

LB: Oviedo/James/Hume

CDM: Leadbitter/Power/McGeoch/Cattermole/Mumba

RM: Morgan/Gooch/McGeady/Maguire/Watmore/Kimpioka

LM: Morgan/Gooch/McGeady/Maguire/Watmore/Kimpioka

CAM: Honeyman/O’Nien/Maguire/McGeady/Gooch

ST: Grigg/Wyke/Watmore/Sterling

ST: Grigg/Wyke/Watmore/Sterling

Too often at the minute, when I watch our lads on the pitch, it is very difficult to discern who’s job is what, and what the plan is. Too often the players look like they don’t know what their jobs are, and they don’t really know what the manager’s plan is for beating the opposition.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not having a go at Jack Ross. I really like him as a person and as a football manager, and he’s clearly got a very bright future that I hope involves leading Sunderland back to the promised land of the Premier League.

But at the minute we are stuck in a tactical rut, and it is taking its toll on results. In a diamond, every man has a clearly defined job. It lends itself comfortably to the possession-based, attractive passing football that Jack Ross quite rightly wants us to play.

Most importantly it gets two strikers on the pitch, with 3 midfielders piling forward to support them, so that we can end this barren run if not scoring more than 1 in a game.

It ticks all the boxes, surely we need to give it a try?

Benjamin Eckford

Ed’s Note [JN]: To be honest, I disagree. A 4-4-2 diamond is a very specialised formation, and it is difficult to swap to on a whim. We have seen it a few times this season, as Ross has experimented. Most recently, it was utilised in the first half against Man City U21s as these games against youth sides in the Checkatrade allow for maximum experimentation with relatively little risk.

In these games in which the 4-4-D was utilised, we struggled massively, and only saw a breakthrough once the formation was tweaked mid-match. You mention the issue of sometimes the players not entirely knowing their roles in the side, well this is exponentially increased in a new formation in which the players practice so little. German football analysis site Spielverlagerung has highlighted on many occasions the 4-4-D and importance of long-term training and familiarity, and are very enlightening.

Luton’s is very effective, but they have played in the same way for almost 2.5 years under Nathan Jones and now Mick Harford. Jones has since moved to Stoke City and hasn't changed to his preferred formation as it is so difficult to adapt to. Kimpioka, Morgan, Watmore and McGeady - as suggested above - would struggle in this role.

In a 4-4-D the wider players often need to be very mobile, very all-rounded central midfielders or defensive wingers converted into the role. Taking Luton as an example, these two are often Pelly Ruddock and Andrew Shinnie - who fit into this description perfectly.

Luton Town v Sheffield Wednesday - FA Cup Third Round Replay
Pelly Ruddock is a player thriving in a 4--4-D, playing in a position which requires a lot of stamina and, crucially, flexibility.
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

On paper, I can see where you are coming from but in practice I doubt we have enough time for such a radical upheaval.

At this point we need to allow our new signings to bed into the team and develop partnerships and dynamics throughout the pitch in order to maximise playing as a team rather than a group of talented individuals - which has been one large issue for us in recent months.

In a 4-4-D you will largely surrender wide areas and teams suffer from being doubled up on the byline and commit a lot of space to opposition attackers in the half-spaces (inside channels). We already suffer from crosses into the box and opposing players picking the ball up at pace in the half-spaces (for example against both Oxford and Blackpool), and I just think this would expose our weaknesses even further.

We need to stick to 4-3-3 morphing into 4-4-2 later in games or shift to a back-three as seen at the start of the season. Essentially, however, the issue isn’t in formation, but our style of play. Blackpool was arguably the best we’ve played since the Luton game in early January, but we still progress up the pitch far too laboriously and our central defenders no longer split wide in possession. Thus as a result the full-backs sit deep and are very reactive in making runs in behind and the wingers are stuck out wide, and therefore the central striker isolated.

Nevertheless, we carved Blackpool open on numerous occasions (a side who before the game had the joint-best defence in the league) and we only didn’t come away with a much-needed win because of the fine margins of Will Grigg’s unfortunate misses.

Will Grigg came under heavy criticism for his misses against Blackpool, but I am certain as he plays more, natural rustiness will be shaken off.
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Grigg has never been given a sustained run of games in the Championship, and as a result he hasn’t ever proven himself at that level. He is very much a striker where the more he plays the better he gets - and I think if we follow the same blueprint we will come away with better performances and vital three points.

A few changes are needed, not wholesale - especially at this stage of the season. For example, Lynden Gooch worked tremendously well on Tuesday, yet he was obviously poor and didn’t really know how to play as a CM on the right of a three. Get that balance right, play more positionally and progressively and these goals will come. I’m sure of it.

I’ve discussed more in-depth how positional football is vital, especially in a back three in more depth on the site. If we are looking for formation changes, that is personally what I’d shift to.