Q: Sunderland seemingly can’t stick with a settled defence. Matthews is in and out with injury, Oviedo is just returning back to fitness, Baldwin and Dunne had a shocker v Accrington, and then we have Ozturk, Flanagan and Loovens waiting in reserve. Should Jack Ross stick with the defence that has started the last two games, or are changes needed? What do we do for the final run of games - is further experimentation needed, or is persistence key?
Neil Green says...
I don’t envy Jack Ross’ situation with his defence. Nobody is nailed on as a starter, and everywhere you look there are more questions than answers.
Our best defensive period this season was with a settled back four of Matthews, James, Baldwin and Flanagan. If that could’ve stayed intact all season and grown together I’d say we’d be fine. But it’s not that simple.
Matthews is injured half the time and rusty for his first few games back. I love Luke O’Nien but he’s not a right back. Oviedo is clearly a better player than James, so when fit poses a difficult problem of how to leave him out. There was a sense that Flanagan and Baldwin as a pair were too similar and a little lightweight, so Jimmy Dunne was brought in and now appears to be first choice. He’s been hit and miss, but that’s to be expected with his age. Neither Flanagan or Baldwin did anything hugely wrong as a pair and are maybe feeling a lack of faith in them, now that they’re playing second fiddle to the new kid.
So what are the answers? I understand Ross wants continuity to build understandings but that’s very hard for him right now. Some possible options...
Flanagan at right back. He’s played there plenty at previous clubs (that’s where I saw him playing at the start of the season). He’s generally fit. He’s actually a defender.
Ozturk. He’s much fitter than at the start of the season and you can see that he’s potentially a beast. He’s had some good games in the Checkatrade and I wouldn’t be unhappy to see him in the starting XI. Back 3 with wing backs. That worked at the start of the season and could work again, especially as we now have more personnel in Dunne and know that O’Nien can do a job at right back if needed.
Or we can just stay with the current starters and hope they gel. Ross sees them in training so knows better than any of us what their potential is.
The bottom line is we’re in League One. Any defenders that ticked all the boxes we’re demanding (physical, good on the ball, consistent, fit all the time, experienced) wouldn’t be in this division. So it’s going to be about the unit, or the system (including further forward).
For me, we have to either stick with a settled back four and be patient, or go back to the system at the start of the season and focus on attack, which is undoubtedly where our best players are.
James Nickels says...
After Friday night’s performance, it is clear a change is desperately needed.
I’m usually a fan of going for a settled defence, but Reece James’ attacking output is essentially negligible, Jimmy Dunne and Jack Baldwin had a personal competition over who could be worse and though O’Nien was decent on the ball, he clearly isn’t a right-back and struggles positionally.
I may get some stick for this, but I’d change to a back three and bring in Ozturk, or bring him in to the back four. Aye he’s a slow, hulking beast but his performances on the season have slowly improved game-by-game and he has proved his fitness - the amount of extra weight he has shed since the start of the season is impressive.
Our biggest weaknesses are defending crosses into the box and set pieces, and in theory with him and Jimmy Dunne (who we stick with despite such a horror show) should deal with that emphatically.
It’s a conundrum, Tom Flanagan hasn’t really put a foot wrong either and I’m always weary of wholesale changes to a defence, but I think it has to be done.
Accrington Stanley hadn’t scored a single league goal since Boxing Day. Yet when they get into the ascendancy for the first time in the game our defence crumbled, heads dropped and they continued to panic for the next hour.
It was truly one of the worst defensive performances I’ve seen in a while. No battle, no heart and, crucially, no thought was put into their performances.
We need to make a change.
Craig Davies says...
Last time we swam the shark infested waters of England’s 3rd professional division and subsequently bossed it, we had a back four of aggressive, committed and never-say-die warriors who could also play a bit when we had time and space, dominating the opposition - sadly, we don’t have a John Kay to play on with a broken leg, or an athletic Benno who’ll smash David Speedy’s head off the clock stand for being cheeky.
We have a few decent lads who try their best with what they’ve got. In retrospect it seems strange, with such a healthy league one budget that we’d start the season with no real stand out brute who embraces the physicality of the league and can lead from the front. Either Baldwin or Flanagan would counterbalance such a player well.
But we don’t really have one.
Dunne again is not bad, and is trying to work his way into reasonable decency. But he’s a baby in professional terms and perhaps we shouldn’t be relying on a young loanee to form the backbone of a promotion winning side. At 43 I’m faster than Ozturk and Ross obviously doesn’t trust him or indeed Loovens to come in and be that man to hold the fort while all around him bombs are being dropped.
The lack of confidence in the back line seeps throughout the team like an airborne virus, until the confidence to throw ourselves forward is overpowered by our panic in leaving our defenders exposed. So we wobble around indecisively in no-man’s land, unable to attack or defend very well due to that pressure.
Ross clearly likes and trusts a combination of Dunne, Baldwin and Flanagan in the centre of defence. As pairs they’ve not quite been strong enough for long enough. I’d be tempted to play them as a 3 with 2 holders in midfield to support and protect. A combination of any of the following - Leadbitter, Power, Mceogh, Mumba, Catts let’s say. We then fill the rest of the team with more creative or dynamic attack-minded players to put pressure on the opposition. We don’t press or dominate teams higher up the park enough and it’s showing in our lack of goals, shots and victories.
O’Nien, Maguire, McGeady, Grigg, Honeyman, Gooch and Wyke have proven they can play in this league and do well. Wyke scored a good amount for Bradford last year ensuring his transfer to us for decent money. Grigg has an outstanding League One record. The others showed in the first half of this season that they can mix it with the best in the league - that’s why we’re still 3rd, when we can’t even buy a win. It hasn’t just gone to pot simply because they’re crap.
Ross has to stick with the players he trusts. Those he believes won’t let him down. Our confidence is too fragile for drastic wholesale changes. But a change in system rather than personnel might be the answer.
But regardless, Jack has to find the answers to this conundrum quickly before Barnsley and Luton become too distant ahead and the wolves behind us begin nibbling our toes.
Jack Ford says...
Before Accrington I’d have said we need to let the new back four bed in, but now it’s clear Baldwin and Dunne shouldn’t play together.
Both looked like a bag of nerves against Stanley, and Baldwin’s idiotic foul in the box potentially cost us three points. Personally, while he seems a decent player, the signing of Dunne is bewildering to me.
What we needed was experience, leadership, and nastiness at the back. I can’t see how Dunne brings any of these. If anything he’s like Baldwin and Flanagan, but with the added drawback of being inexperienced. This clearly was on show on Friday - he looked at times like he wanted the ground to open up.
Ross clearly looked to favour the back 3 earlier in the season, and something clearly needs to change, so I wouldn’t mind seeing that return now that we can do so without Loovens or Ozturk - both of whom have done well in the Checkatrade but do not fill me with any confidence whatsoever.
While Dunne Baldwin and Flanagan are very similar, this would give us a numbers advantage at the very least, and allow Baldwin and Flanagan to run out of defence with the ball as they like to without leaving us vulnerable behind them.
O’Nien deserves a run of games in his favoured midfield position in my opinion, but he clearly has the energy and character to play the wing back role, and I’d like to see Oviedo come in on the left to provide another attacking option.
I still think a lot of our defensive problems aren’t even down to the defence. Too often we struggle and struggle to break a team down, and they kick one long ball towards us and suddenly are one on one with a centre back. We need smaller gaps between midfield and defence, and to attack teams quicker to avoid being so open to counter attacks.
Ultimately it’s a question of risk, and how much Ross is willing to mix things up at the most vital stage of the season. Safe to say he should have sorted this long ago.
Mark Carrick says...
Earlier in the season Ross tinkered with a three at the back system. With only four centre halves, this system relied on the likes of Adam Matthews or Reece James making it a lopsided formation.
Jimmy Dunne has come into the squad but is remarkably similar to both Baldwin and Flanagan. Could it be that all three could play together? Would that eradicate some of the mistakes we’ve seen in recent weeks? It certainly is a possibility that would allow other players to operate at their best.
For example, Luke O’Nien has been functional as cover for Matthews at right back but he himself is not a defender. However, he has impressed going forward as a full back. Could wing-back suit his skills and talents better? Would that allow James to be more attacking or allow Ross to reintegrate Oviedo down our left?
One of the issues has been the speed of our attacks. Would having wing-backs lend itself to quicker movement down the flanks? Would having Leadbittter or McGeouch, Honeyman or Power in the central roles be protected having wing-backs who could add further protection to a back three?
Having found a way to create and even score more goals in recent games, the onus is back on how to keep a clean sheet. Getting our best defenders on the field in a way that plays to their strengths is now important and this formation could well work.
It would also give licence for three attackers. Grigg operates best as the focal point to a three, who move quickly to create chances. Perhaps Gooch and Morgan would be natural driving forces behind Grigg, but we saw the benefit of Maguire-McGeady partnership against Accrington.
The point is, three at the back could solve a number of our current problems and is a formation Ross used to great effect when at St Mirren.