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Three at the back, or four at the back - how should Sunderland’s defence line up next season?

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Sunderland’s two key defensive acquisitions and an alteration in tactics in our first pre-season game indicate that we could see a change in system. Three at the back or four at the back - what should we predominantly play with next season?

Sunderland AFC

Q: Sunderland’s first game of pre-season saw us toy with using a new formation, with a back three made up of central defenders flanked by wing backs. Do you think Sunderland should predominantly play with a back three or back four next season?


Michael Graham says...

I do like three centre backs and always have. I can’t deny it.

However, for Sunderland next season it’s really not necessarily a change in formation we need for next season, but a change in attitude.

We need to be quicker to get on the front foot and more ruthless when we do. We need to be nastier on the pitch and relish being the big dog in the yard rather than feel pressured by it.

It’s very fashionable to talk about tactics these days and, in my opinion, that exaggerates the importance of them. Graeme Souness got a lot of stick last season for stating the importance of ‘being first to the ball’. He was labelled a dinosaur and derided for it. But the reality is there was a huge amount of truth in his words.

How often were Sunderland first to the ball last season? Not often enough. Teams were happy to let us have it and control the areas in which we could use it. I can’t remember a single game when we really went after the opposition.

Switching to three at the back would probably help create overload opportunities out wide, which could be a great help, but if it’s going to be 3-4-3 it would leave us with a huge excess of central midfield players and we are struggling to keep them all happy as it is.

On the other hand, a 3-5-2 would probably solve the striker problem in the sense that McGeady, Watmore, and Maguire would be very effective as second strikers behind Grigg or Wyke, while also making the most of our strength in central midfield.

So, yes, a new formation may be good in terms of freshening things up a little, and I’d be in favour of a well-designed 3-5-2 especially. But we should be under no illusions that the changes that will make the most difference will be mental ones.

South Shields v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Damian Brown says...

It’s something that I would love to see. Playing with three at the back frees up what would ordinarily be a very 50/50 role in the sense of fullbacks, and with more attacking intent we’re more likely to not only score more goals and win more games, but as fans we get to watch a slightly more exciting game of football.

IF - and if I could make that if in huge, burning letters I would, such is the importance of this if - we can protect the goal with a back three. This has a huge question mark over it, and one that as a manager I’d be terrified to try to answer.

Willis is, by all accounts, a solid player. I’m glad we’ve brought in some much-needed reinforcement in that position, though I dare say we could use more. I’m not a keen fan of any of our centre back’s, frankly, and without being able to adequately judge Willis on what little I’ve seen of him, I wouldn’t be able to say whether this is a good idea or a bad one.

It just fills me with a sense of dread. I can’t have any confidence in it until I’ve seen it work time and time again, and even then you have to accept that there will be opponents, both teams overall and individual players, that either work well against that system in spite of your best efforts, or that can’t be accounted for.

In theory though, and on paper, I would love to see us in a more attacking system that can depend on the back line to stand resolute in the face of inevitable counter attack.

I suppose what’s needed as much as a dependable back line is adaptability. The players need to be drilled in two or three tactics that they can use to turn most situations to their advantage. A back three is a very brave - or reckless - tactic and what’s arguably the most important factor here is that Jack Ross can recognise when one formation isn’t working, and seamlessly shift his team onto the next.

Coventry City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - Ricoh Arena Photo by Tim Goode/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

Tom Atkinson says...

Although defensive frailties cost us a great deal last season, I’m still very worried about our forward play. We struggled to create chances last season and have done very little to address that issue.

Speaking about the defence for a moment, the addition of Jordan Willis will be a massive boost as it adds a physical, pacey defender to our ranks. For me, that will allow Sunderland to play either a back four or a five quite comfortably. Connor McLaughlin slots nicely into the right of the back three or at right back, too, so realistically we have some improved options there this season.

However, offensively we still desperately need to either tinker with our system to get the most out of Grigg and Wyke - who are both top League One forwards - or bring in another creative player to add some flair and guile needed in our final third.

Of course, Aiden McGeady is a brilliant player at this level and it’s great news that we have secured his future, but Sunderland could do with another player capable of producing magic in the opposition’s area.

I think that part of the issue stems from the fact that we didn’t have a system that played to our forward’s strengths. Maja was an excellent forward capable of operating prolifically in the area, but also outside the opposition box where he was adept at receiving the ball and helping to move the play. Neither Wyke nor Grigg do that. As such, you either need to play with a 10 to supply Grigg or Wyke, or you play with pacey wide players capable of delivering the ball into the box with purpose and accuracy. Sunderland don’t really have either, to be honest. Gooch, Kimpioka and Watmore all lack end product, and Honeyman and Maguire’s form was patchy at times. As such, Jack Ross needs to adapt and find a system that creates chances for our forwards.

Defensively, for large spells last season, we were pretty solid. Two additions and Alim Ozturk’s decent form last season suggests to me that we will be okay this season in that department. It’s the other end of the pitch we need to focus on now.

Sunderland Pre-Season Training Session Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Mark Carrick says...

I was encouraged to see the formation Ross deployed at Shields in our first friendly. Whilst not reading too much into one game, I do still hope this signals a change in tactics and formations.

For large periods last year our defence was asked to defend a single goal or even stand firm as the attacking side of the team sought an equaliser. The outcome was normally the same and too many draws resulted from a weak back line. The fact Jon McLaughlin was in the running for Player of the Year was due to the times he kept us in games.

The first order of the day is surely to replace poor players and too many were in defence. The arrival of Conor McLaughlin and Jordan Willis is a move in the right direction.

The next stage is to make a robust defensive strategy. Having three solid centre halves protected by a deep-lying midfielder would be a positive move. We have that midfielder in Leadbitter or McGeough or even Power. We also have wing-backs in Hume, O’Nien and Gooch. Both the right sided players are naturally more advanced players but Gooch excelled in that role early last season and the role would similarly fit O’Nien’s natural game.

The addition of a third centre half and the recruitment of left-sided cover for Hume if Oviedo leaves could be the final pieces in the jigsaw.

Playing wing-backs or even 3-4-3 formation also enables greater creativity and removes a reliance on McGeady. Having players in and around the striker is a must this season if we are to score more goals and having a creative number ten or even a pair in the 3-4-3 line-up would certainly improve the team further up the field.

Sunderland Unveil New Signing Conor McLaughlin Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Phil West says...

Playing with wing backs, with your defence anchored with centre backs is most definitely a ‘risk versus reward’ kind of system.

On one hand, it could give us a much more potent, exciting attacking threat, with wing backs making overlapping runs to provide greater firepower to the attackers and stretching teams if we can attack with pace.

On the other hand, it would ask a hell of a lot of McLaughlin and Oviedo to cover the flanks and to ensure that counter-attacks don’t leave our defenders exposed. Do they have the stamina and the discipline to play that way? That’s a question that certainly would need to be asked, especially given the physical, highly intense nature of League One.

My personal preference, at this point, would be to stick with a solid back four, to keep it tight and keep the risk-taking to a minimum. However, if we were to sign another strong central defender to complement Willis, Ozturk and Baldwin/Flanagan, that would potentially offer us the stability and the depth that we would need in order to play with three at the back.

I’ve long maintained that Jack Ross must switch to a more attack-minded game-plan next season, to fully utilise the potential of the team going forward and to provide a stronger supply of ammunition for the strikers. Three at the back definitely ticks that box, and if he feels confident enough to choose it as his ‘go-to’ formation, I would fully support it!