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Talking Tactics: Breaking down Sunderland’s Belenenses performance now that the dust has settled

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Sunderland suffered their first defeat of pre-season on Saturday evening against Belenenses - and, now that the dust has settled, Phil Butler breaks down what we did right and what we did wrong from a tactical perspective.

Sunderland AFC 0 - 1 Belenenses SAD

Jordan Willis: the key in the back three

For me, Sunderland’s man of the match was Jordan Willis, who was again impressive as part of the back three we have seen in all of the pre-season games so far.

However, with Conor McLaughlin dropping back from wing back to the right-sided centre back role, Willis started in the middle of the defence - and to say he looked impressive would be an understatement.

At just 5ft 11, Willis may seem more suited to one of the wider roles, but his pace and reading of the game actually makes him perfect for the role of a covering centre back in the middle of the back three. As McLaughlin and Flanagan were forced to push up and cover the space left in behind the advancing wing-backs, Willis had the pace and awareness to cover whenever either of his partners were dragged out of position.

At times in the first half it seemed as though the former Coventry man was defending on his own, as time and time again he was the man who mopped up balls played down the channels in behind Sunderland’s wide defenders.

The attribute which has stood out in Willis’ first two games is his pace, an attribute which sets him apart from Sunderland’s other central defenders - and could make him key to Jack Ross making his three-man defence work.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Still something missing in midfield

For all the good play Sunderland showed in a first half where they could, and probably should, have been two-goals ahead, I couldn’t help but feel that there is still something missing from their midfield.

Dylan McGeouch and Grant Leadbitter arer both tidy on the ball, and have a good range of passing but I do feel that, as a squad, Sunderland are lacking someone who can take the ball in deep positions and dribble past a few opposition players.

For what it’s worth, the 3-4-2-1 formation does seem to be an attempt at making this missing piece in Sunderland’s squad not too costly, since the midfield duo play almost just infront of the back three whilst the wing-backs act as wingers and the two attacking midfielders offer the creativity. This works brilliantly against teams who are happy to “give it a go” against Sunderland, and when Jack Ross’ team can win the ball high up the pitch however, when teams sit back, the side it crying out for someone to skip past a player in a deeper position and open up spaces in the final third for Sunderland’s attacking midfielders to create chances.

For this reason, I would like to see Jack Ross sacrifice one of these holding midfielders for an extra creative player, at least against teams who come to the Stadium of Light and sit ten men behind the ball - Elliot Embleton or George Honeyman could both fulfill this role, which would allow any two of Maguire, McGeady, Watmore or even Kimpioka to play behind the lone striker.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Getting closer to the team against Oxford?

The eleven players that started Sunderland’s penultimate preseason friendly may well be the same players who start against Oxford United at the Stadium of Light in two weeks time.

In truth, there only seems to be three or four places up for grabs as Jack Ross starts to work out what his best eleven is. Jon McLaughlin is sure to start unless he picks up an injury in the next fortnight, as are new signings Jordan Willis and Conor McLaughlin. The only question mark at the back seems to be Tom Flanagan who would be the man to drop out of the team if a new centre back is signed before the league season starts.

Right wing back is another place up for grabs, despite the fact thet Luke O’Nien is the current favourite for this role Lynden Gooch has also been impressive at wing back in preseason albeit on the opposite flank.

Denver Hume is also sure to start, given that he is the only left back at the club until Oviedo returns late to preseason and will probably start the opening game on the bench - if he is not sold - just as he did last year.

There is also a place up for grabs in central midfield, although at least one of McGeouch and Leadbitter is sure to start, Ethan Robson or Max Power - fitness depending - could be seen as an option which would give more balance to the midfield.

Behind the striker, Watmore and Embleton showed the most creativity of any attacking midfield combination in preseason, and since Embleton especially has impressed and Watmore offers something different running in behind, it appears Chris Maguire may be forced to start from the bench against his former club.

The position of lone striker, is probably the least secure place in the team as it stands. Currently Will Grigg is the most likely to start the season in this role, but largely down to price tag and reputation rather than anything we have seen in a Sunderland shirt. This is where Sunderland’s final preseason game against Heerenveen next weekend could be key - and if either Grigg or Wyke can bag themselves a goal in that game I would imaging they would start the league season up front.

Overall, I would have few complaints if the team which started against Belenenses also played against Oxford, but how good it would be to see Will Grigg get a few goals next weekend.

Sunderland AFC vis Getty Images