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Talking Tactics: What did we learn from Sunderland’s pre-season stalemate with Benfica B?

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Sunderland kicked off their Portuguese mini-break with a goalless draw against LigaPro side Benfica B - here are just a couple of things that we learnt from the way Jack Ross set up tactically last night.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

3 at the back is here to stay!

In Sunderland’s second game of pre-season Jack Ross again set his team up in a form of the 3-4-3 formation. In the first half this consisted of both Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke as out-and-out strikers with Chris Maguire operating as a number ten. In the second, once Grigg was replaced by Kimpioka at half time, and Embleton and Watmore came on for Maguire and Wyke, this became more of a 3-4-2-1, with two attacking midfielders cutting inside to support a lone striker - first Wyke and then Benji.

Due to the lack of width offered by both variations of the 3-4-3 used by Ross in Portugal the importance of Sunderland’s wing backs cannot be understated. Lynden Gooch was the stand out player in the first half, starting on the left - a role which meant he was forced to keep his game simple. Conor McLaughlin looks like a steady player on the right, although I am not sure he is the kind of attacking full back needed to keep Sunderland on the front foot, and he seems more suited to one of the wide centre-back roles.

The role of the wing backs in helping Sunderland to get forward was shown by Sunderland’s slow start during the first ten minutes of the game - they regularly looked to go too long, too quickly and struggled to retain possession as a result, meaning the wing backs were found doing their defensive duties more than their attacking ones.

However, once Sunderland - and especially Leadbitter - started to show some more composure on the ball, allowing the wing backs time to get forward in support of the front three, Sunderland grew into the game. It’s no coincidence that both Grigg and Wyke had brilliant chances created for the by left-wing-back Lynden Gooch.

SL Benfica B 0 - 0 Sunderland AFC (18/07/2019)

Can Grigg & Wyke *really* play together?

Whilst if you had asked many this time last year to sign a League One target man and a proven League One goalscorer many would have earmarked Wyke and Grigg, I’m still not sure if the two can play together in a pair, and the reason is pretty simple - they’re both out-and-out strikers who don’t naturally get involved in the build up play.

Whilst Sunderland had a certain degree of success with two up front at times in the first half of last season - Josh Maja being paired with Maguire, Sinclair and Wyke with some, albeit limited, success - this was not with the pair of Grigg and Wyke who seemed more like a disastrous duo than one which could fire Sunderland to promotion. The main difference between the strike partnerships which were successful for Sunderland last season and those which were not is that those which were a success included Josh Maja.

Some may say that this is an easy assumption to make, since Maja was one of the league’s most prolific strikers, but it was not the teenager’s goals which made him successful in a pair, but his movement off the ball when Sunderland were building the play.

Whereas both Grigg and Wyke look to play mainly in the penalty box, Wyke looking for headers and Grigg for any half-chances, Maja would come short and interchange with the midfield - he just happened to also be a deadly finisher.

This is also why Maguire could play with Wyke during Sunderland’s playoff semi-final ties, because he was happy to link midfield and attack. Without a player to do that - or with an over-reliance on just one player to both drop deep and drift wide, Sunderland look unbalanced and more one-dimensional in attack.

Maybe its time for Jack Ross to pick his striker.

Will it be Will Grigg or Charlie Wyke? Because it certainly can’t be both.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images