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Talking Tactics: Jack Ross needs to throw the shackles off & let Sunderland attack - here’s why

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Sunderland drew a blank for the third consecutive pre-season game on Saturday. Jack Ross needs to throw the shackles off and let his team attack - here’s why.

Sunderland AFC 0 - 1 SC Heervenenen (27/07/2019)
Phil Butler

3-4-3 has its strengths, but its weaknesses were on show against high-quality opposition

The formation Sunderland have used in all of their preseason games this year, 3-4-3, has shown plenty of promise - mainly in the interplay between the front three in the two games in Portugal - but against a top-flight Dutch side at the Stadium of Light its weakness were on full show.

Like all three-at-the-back systems, the 3-4-3 can be either an attacking three-man-defence or a defensive five-man-defence depending on the way the game pans out. Over in Portugal, where Sunderland played two second-tier sides, it was most certainly a three-man defence as the wing backs spend most of their time in the opposition half, providing the width and occupying defenders to allow the front three more space in the final third.

However, against a Heervenenen side who enjoyed the majority of possession, those wing-backs were forced to defend, and an expansive 3-4-2-1 became an ultra-defensive 5-4-1 as both wing backs and attacking midfielders dropped back to help out the defence.

This approach, which meant that there was sometimes nine players behind the ball as Sunderland defended, meant that Sunderland looked rather solid at the back, something not disproven by Heerenveen’s winner - a wonderful strike from long-range - and something which has been the case throughout preseason and is a marked improvement on the comedy of errors that was Sunderland’s defending at times last year.

However, this defensive solidity came at a price, and with nine-men in their own third of the pitch (as shown below) Will Grigg was left up front with no-one in red and white in sight.

Sunderland looked rather limp going forward as a result.

The 5-4-1 which the 3-4-2-1 becomes when under the cosh makes me think that, against teams who dominate the ball a 4-2-3-1 would be a better formation to use - since this would be a 4-4-2 defensive shape, and ensure that Grigg has some company in the opposition half to provide an out-ball down the channels and exploit any space in-behind opposition full-backs on the counter.

3-4-2-1 on paper, but an ultra-defensive 5-4-1 in reality

Two defensive midfielders and three centre backs is too conservative

Another reason why Sunderland’s formation was too conservative on Saturday evening was the central midfield duo of Grant Leadbitter and Dylan McGeouch - two players who was out-and-out defensive midfielders, who hold their positions in front of the defence.

In the early pre-season games, this duo was a deep-lying midfielder - one of Leadbitter or McGeouch - paired with a midfield runner - someone like Ethan Robson - who has the legs to join the attack when Sunderland counter, and change the balance of the side from having five defenders and five attackers, to four defenders, five attackers and the ‘runner’ who takes part in both phases of play.

I often criticised Jack Ross team selections in central midfield, as for virtually all of the year he played two defensive players in front of his back four - perhaps in order to try and cover for his shaky central defence. However, now that the signings of Willis and McLaughlin seem to have shored up the defensive side of Sunderland’s team, its time to take the hand-break off and introduce some more attacking players into our side.

Personally, I would have George Dobson alongside McGeouch for the visit of Oxford United this weekend. Dobson showed in his cameo at the end of the game on Saturday that he has the legs to get up and down the pitch, and also has the range of passing which would mean Grant Leadbitter’s long passes wouldn’t be sorely missed.

Whatever team Jack Ross decides to go with on Saturday, he has to show that he is willing to plan an open, attacking game which will get the best out of Sunderland’s attacking players, and trust a back three (or four) marshalled by Willis and McLaughlin to keep the opposition at bay without being shielded by two slow, defensive players to cover them.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images