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Talking Tactics: Is it time for Sunderland to return back to playing the 4-2-3-1 formation?

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Sunderland’s three at the back experiment doesn’t appear to be working - would our players and manager benefit from a return back to playing in a more familiar system?

Danny Roberts

No attacking penetration

I have to admit I was one of the people who welcomed Sunderland’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation at the start of pre-season, and was looking forward to see how a narrow front three including players such as McGeady, Embleton, Grigg, Watmore and Maguire could cause problems to league one defences.

However, the idea was more promising than the execution and Sunderland have looked limp going forward in both of their games this season.

Whilst Sunderland have enjoyed the majority of the ball in both games this season, 57% against Oxford and 52% at Portman Road on Saturday, they have managed only four shots on target - one of which was a penalty.

On the face of it these stats paint a similar picture of Sunderland enjoying plenty of the ball but struggling to break a well-drilled opposition down - but this was not the case against Ipswich and the game was actually rather open, yet Sunderland still couldn’t manage to create any good chances without the assistance of Ipswich defender Luke Chambers.

The build-up to Lynden Gooch’s equaliser emphasises the space Ipswich left for Sunderland to exploit in behind their defence, but even on this occasion the ball to Marc McNulty was over-hit - and Sunderland were unable to threaten in behind.

Sunderland’s only shot on target
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

A back three all at sea

Considering Sunderland’s lack of attacking quality, it would have been reasonable to expect some solidity at the back. How wrong this assumption would be.

Despite Sunderland’s poor performance last weekend, especially down the left side, the back three was unchanged - although if you watched the opening half an hour against Ipswich you would be forgiven for thinking the three had never met before.

Tom Flanagan displayed his usual lack of positional awareness as the space in behind Hume was exploited for the second time this season. and the use of just a three-man back line against two strikers left even Jon McLaughlin looking nervy.

For me this has to be the end of the 3-5-2 experiment - it may look good on paper, but the players clearly don’t look comfortable in the system. Whilst the second half wasn’t great it was a whole lot better than the opening 30 minutes, were almost undoubtedly the worst of Jack Ross’s time at Sunderland so far.

When the side switched to a 4-2-3-1 then a 4-4-2 the attack remained weak, but Sunderland looked much better at the back. Jordan Willis started to show why he was signed, Flanagan’s positioning improved and both O’Nien and McLaughlin at full back looked like they knew how to balance defence and attack from deeper positions.

Four at the back will surely be back in the following week - but Jack Ross must make sure it is not riddled with the same problems of last season.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

So how will this year’s 4-2-3-1 differ from last season?

Whilst it would be a fair comment to question how well a return to 4-2-3-1 could work, considering this is the set up which ultimately failed to deliver promotion last season, the recruitment over the summer has corrected some of the mistakes which were evident in last year’s team.

The back four lacked pace, and the introduction of Jordan Willis has certainly corrected this. The former Coventry defender could be the perfect partner for Ozturk, who looked suspect against quick forwards but was dominant in the air and certainly improved Sunderland’s defence when he came into the side. He was extremely hard done by to have been overtaken in the pecking order by Tom Flanagan.

The midfield was probably the biggest weakness of Sunderland’s team last season and the duo of Cattermole and Leadbitter especially was far too slow and sat too deep to give the attacking players adequate support. The signing of Dobson, plus McGeouch’s return to the side, gives the side a much more dynamic look in the middle, and seems a more suitable duo to play in a two-man midfield.

The added energy in the deeper midfield positions also allows the attacking midfielder to play further forward, and therefore increases the options of who could be used in this position. Whilst Elliot Embleton seems to be the most natural fit, Chris Maguire could also be used in this role since it would require significantly less work off-the-ball with the distance between number ten and central midfielders reduced significantly.

Sunderland seem to have corrected the shortcomings of last season’s system - surely it’s time to give 4-2-3-1 another chance.

How a return to 4-2-3-1 could look, is this what we will see next weekend?
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