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Talking Tactics: Should Sunderland’s defensive disaster on Saturday spell the end for 4-4-2?

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The biggest talking point coming away from Sunderland’s loss on Saturday was the formation and how it left us badly exposed at the back. What do you think - is it time to have a re-think and give up on the 4-4-2 formation we’ve used in recent weeks?

NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Teams...

Sunderland manager Jack Ross made just the one enforced chance to the side which started the rather underwhelming one-all draw against Burton Albion on Tuesday night. Max Power came back into the centre of midfield for the injured Dylan McGeouch.

This one change meant that Sunderland again lined up in the 4-4-2 formation which had produced seven points out of a possible nine following the defeat at Wembley two weeks ago. Jon McLaughlin continued in goal, “protected” by a back four of Luke O’Nien, Tom Flanagan, Jack Baldwin and Bryan Oviedo. Grant Leadbitter partnered Power in the engine room, these two being flanked by George Honeyman and Lewis Morgan. Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg continued their partnership up front.

Mark Robins’ side also made just the one change following a draw in their last game - nil-nil at home to Bristol Rovers. Jordan Shipley replaced Tom Bayliss in the middle of the park.

The away side lined up in what was, until recently, Sunderland’s preferred shape - 4-2-3-1. Lee Burge started in goal, behind a defence of Dujon Sterling, Tom Davies, Dominic Hyam and Brandon Mason. Liam Kelly and Jordan Shipley started in a pair at the base of midfield, with the pacey trio of Luke Thomas, Bright Enobakhare and Jordi Hiwula behind the equally pacey lone-striker Amadou Bakayoko.

Sunderland AFC 4 - 5 Coventry City (13/04/2019)

The End of 4-4-2?

Sunderland’s poor first twenty minutes against Burton on Tuesday night showed the main weaknesses of playing 4-4-2 with flying wing-backs, and the full ninety minutes against Coventry showed why the formation has gone out of fashion for teams looking to play attacking football.

Not only did Grant Leadbitter have his worst game since rejoining the club, but Luke O’Nien was often found out of position up the pitch, and George Honeyman struggled to get back to cover for the former Wycombe full back, as the captain looked to drift inside from his starting position on the right of midfield.

The game against Accrington Stanley just under a fortnight ago showed how, on a small pitch against a defensive side Sunderland could afford to take the risks associated with playing 4-4-2, but at home against a side with quick players on the break, on a larger pitch, the traditional British formation leaves way too much space in behind the wing backs - and Coventry exploited this to perfection and left Sunderland’s defenders embarrassed.

Baldwin and Flanagan were horrific, but why were they left so exposed?
Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Where could Jack Ross turn now?

With 4-4-2 presumably off the table, for Friday’s game at least, Jack Ross has some decisions to make - a change is needed, but with just five games left wholesale untested formations and player combinations would be as rash as they are unnecessary.

There is also a couple of considerations for Sunderland’s Scottish manager in deciding his starting lineup for the final promotion push. Aiden McGeady, put simple, is Sunderland’s best attacking player and must play when fit, Charlie Wyke’s recent form has made him undroppable, and Saturday showed that our central defenders need protection - be that safety in numbers by adding another centre back, or by putting an extra man in midfield to shield the back four.

This probably leaves Jack Ross with two options going into the game on Friday; 3-5-2 (more specifically 3-4-1-2) or 4-2-3-1.

Which option Jack Ross will go for probably depends on whether or not he feels the need to maintain the partnership of Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke up front. This is only possible in the 3-5-2 formation (since 4-4-2 is now a no go) meaning that Aiden McGeady would have to be given a central free role behind the two strikers and George Honeyman (presuming he won’t be dropped) would play in the deeper role which has actually seen him play some of his best football this season. The three centre backs (supported by one defensive midfielder - most likely Leadbitter) would perhaps mask some of their inadequacies through sheer force of numbers up against a maximum of two opposition forwards - and the spare man could also cover for flying wing-backs Oviedo and O’Nien.

Perhaps the most likely switch for Jack Ross is to drop one of his strikers (most likely Grigg who is visibly carrying a knock) and bring another man into the centre of midfield in order to play two genuine defensive midfielders in front of the back four.

Lee Cattermole - back to the bench after injury against Coventry - will be at the top of the list of contenders to come into the side in that position, and if he and Leadbitter could resume their partnership which was so successful during February and March that would provide more protection to Sunderland’s weak back four.

These two holding players could also cover for Sunderland’s two wing backs - who could advance up the pitch without leaving the opposition forwards acres of space to run into on the break. The main draw back to this formation is the one up front - and since this would be Wyke who isn’t the most mobile - the three attacking players behind him would have to make a conscious effort to get near him and prevent him from becoming isolated.

Of course every formation has its weaknesses, and 4-4-2 still has a place for more direct teams who don’t mind playing four proper defenders, but for Sunderland who look to play on the front foot they need to change to something different - and 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1 are two options which are available to Jack Ross going into Friday’s game against play-off chasing Doncaster

Will Jack Ross choose one of these formations for the run in?
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