Reverting to a back four
There’s no doubt Sunderland have looked a completely different team in the past few weeks since moving to a flat back four. The three at the back formation used in the opening games against Oxford United and Ipswich Town suddenly feels like a distant memory.
Despite Jack Ross’ claim that moving away from a back three and reverting to a back four was “a case of picking the teams and the systems for the games,” there’s absolutely a realisation that, in the long term, a back three with the players we have at our disposal simply doesn’t work.
With a flat back four Sunderland have looked a better defensive unit and, crucially, a much better offensive unit too.
Clean sheets have still evaded us, but in the four games we’ve played with a back four we’ve managed to net ten goals as opposed to the average of one per game with three at the back.
Willis and Ozturk partnership
We’ve already discussed the fact that Jack Ross’ decision to revert to a back four has paid dividends, but you also have to give an enormous amount of credit to Jordan Willis and Alim Ozturk for forming a hugely impressive partnership at the hearts of our defence.
When, in the opening weeks of the campaign, Willis was tasked with being the centre of a back three and the only genuine centre back in the starting eleven, it’s fair to say he looked nervy and out of sorts.
With Ozturk next to him, though, he is showing all the qualities we were promised. He’s rarely beaten in the air, has got bags of pace, is a danger in the opposition box and - when he keeps it simple - is more than capable of helping to build attacks from the back.
Ozturk, on the other hand, is the perfect partner. Sniffing out danger, he’s capable of using his strength and anticipation to nullify oncoming attacks using a safety first attitude that is sometimes necessary at this level. His reading of the game makes up for his lack of pace, and, on the occasions he is caught for speed, Willis is more than able to cover for him.
It looks like the perfect match and they’ve complimented each other beautifully.
The return to form of Max Power
Jack Ross has an abundance of riches in the centre of the park, but the best central midfield pairing has often been a source of debate among fans and pundits alike.
The resurgence of Max Power does, in my opinion, leave a strong argument that whichever two players Ross opts for in his Sunderland engine room, the former Wigan Atheltic man must simply form half of it based on his form since returning to the starting eleven.
After tailing off horribly last term following an excellent beginning to life on Wearside, Power seems to have found his form again, and his reintroduction to the squad has made us look much more energetic and dynamic in the middle.
It’s taken longer than we would have liked, but Power seems to have shaken off the shackles that came with receiving three red cards last term and is back to his tough tackling, energetic best in the middle. Long may it continue.
Chris Maguire’s injection of character
With Sunderland we too often see players hide when things are going a little south on the pitch - especially in recent years. Cover your eyes, shy away from the ball and say the fans are nasty - sound familiar?
Chris Maguire, however, is not a coward. For too many years, Sunderland’s starting eleven has lacked characters. The Peter Reid team of the late 90’s was the most successful of our recent history and they were absolutely dripping in character.
When things get tough and the manager and team are being questioned, having the character of Chris Maguire in the ranks means you already have a huge part of the remedy to fix an ailing team.
Maguire isn’t afraid of making a mistake and will put himself in the firing line in an attempt to change the team’s luck for the better. Having him back, fully fit and in the starting eleven is a huge reason for our change in fortunes.