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Talking Tactics: Without a clear plan, Sunderland will never look like the sum of their parts

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After a disappointing display away to Bolton, Phil Butler analyses the Sunderland performance and highlights the issues that led to such a poor performance.

Danny Roberts

Hume hung out to dry up against Verlinden

Whilst Sunderland were far from great in the first half, for the most part they did manage to make Bolton look unlikely to score. Except, however, when the hosts attacked down their right-hand side, where on-loan winger Verlinden was up against Denver Hume.

Whilst Hume was highly rated going into the season, and was entrusted with the starting berth at left back following the departure of Reece James and Bryan Oviedo, to say things haven’t been plain sailing for the young full back would be an understatement. Saturday was the second time this season that Jack Ross has taken him off after a poor first half showing.

That being said, the way the team was set up, with Aiden McGeady given a free role on the left of midfield in front of Hume, meant that Sunderland’s left back was often up against both Josh Emmanuel moving forward from right back as well as Verlinden - the latter often getting the better of Hume one-on-one time and time again.

The decision to take Hume off at half time was an obvious one, but that didn’t stop the threat posed by Verlinden who also beat Conor McLaughlin when up against the experienced Northern Irish defender on Sunderland right flank.

The main change Sunderland needed to make, and didn’t, was for the midfielders to drop back and support their full backs rather than leaving them to be hung out to dry.

Is it time McGeady was moved behind the striker to play someone in front of Hume who can give the youngster more defensive support?
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

No Plan with the ball

Any performance that resulted in anything less than a comfortable win at the University of Bolton Stadium was going to be deemed unacceptable by most, if not all, Sunderland fans. But even if Sunderland had managed to steal a victory in the sunshine on Saturday, that would not have changed that fact that the Lads looked bereft of ideas - especially going forward.

Since Jack Ross joined the club at the beginning of last season we have seen a few different styles without ever really committing to how he wanted Sunderland to play.

Initially, Sunderland played some brilliant, fluid attacking play including counter-pressing to win the ball back in the ‘lopsided 3-5-2’ formation. Then, when Charlie Wyke returned to fitness, Sunderland switched to a more route-one approach with long balls played up for Wyke to flick onto then top-scorer Josh Maja.

Then, Maja left soon after and Sunderland didn’t really have a style of play, and this is something which has continued into this season. After starting out looking to play a possession-based 3-4-2-1 formation, Ross abandoned the experiment after just a few games for a completely different style which involves hitting long balls over the opposition back line for the strikers to chace, with wingers playing narrow allowing them to get into the box.

On Saturday, however, Bolton started with a deep defensive line meaning there was no space for Sunderland to play long balls into the channels. As such, Jack Ross’ side looked utterly bewildered as to how they were going to create chances. Yes, they created a few good opening from crosses in the second half, but with the wingers all playing narrow this seems to have been a product of Bolton’s solid defence through the middle - leaving Sunderland’s full backs free - rather than this being an effort by Sunderland to expand their play.

After the low point of his Sunderlad career, Jack Ross is in charge of a team lacking identity, cutting edge, and any real sense of togetherness between players and fans which was the overwhelming trait of Sunderland just 12 months ago. A major reaction is needed from the manager and his players.

Another game without a goal for Will Grigg, and Sunderland lack a clear plan to turn this around
Sunderland AFC via Getty Images