Something that has quietly bubbled under the surface in recent weeks when observing chatter amongst other followers of EFL League One is the defined style of play in which one of the less heralded sides in the division, Rochdale, have played so far this season under the stewardship of new manager Brian Barry-Murphy.
The fact they’re competitive at this level means they deserve immense praise - without the goals of talismanic veteran forward Ian Henderson over recent years it would be fair to assume that they might not have been able to stave off relegation to the fourth tier as often as they have, yet they have come flying out of the blocks this season when many pundits predicted that they would struggle towards the bottom of the table.
The key has been the style in which they play - where in the past Rochdale teams have had to scrap and fight to stay alive, Barry-Murphy’s side are trying to do things the right way, playing in a manner that has taken other teams by surprise.
10+ - Rochdale have scored three league goals directly following passages of play with at least 10 passes this season - in England's top four tiers, only Manchester City (5) have done so more often. Barry-Murphy. pic.twitter.com/gHCHrnBGL9— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 1, 2019
Dale - with their budgetary restrictions, relatively small playing squad, sixteen year old right back and inexperienced manager - are showing that despite having limitations they play in a style that not only excites the supporters, but gets results. They’ve lost only once this season - narrowly against ourselves when we played there a few weeks back.
Rochdale are proof that embracing what you do have, believing in a way of playing, and having a squad of players who buy into what you are trying to do can reap rewards - whether you have the best players and the most money, or the worst players and the least money.
Right so fucking ROCHDALE scored this goal and you’re telling me Pep Guardiola isn’t having an influence on English football?? pic.twitter.com/5guBbZpnYE— Colin (@colgcra) September 1, 2019
Comparatively, Sunderland are a titan in League One terms. Despite a relatively low spend on transfers this summer, Jack Ross now has a squad at his disposal that is surely the envy of almost all other League One managers. His ‘second string’ scored three goals and put Premier League Burnley out of the League Cup last Wednesday - a clear indication of the quality within Sunderland’s ranks, proof indeed that even in reserve there’s a glut of talented players who, in most cases, would walk into almost every other League One side.
Yet, perhaps the sheer amount of bodies that Ross has to toy with has hampered his ability to settle on a way of playing that gets the most from his best players. Early in the season we attempted to play with three at the back, but the fact we had no wing backs of note meant our game plan was nonsensical - the opening two results reflected that our players weren’t perhaps up to playing in the style Ross wanted to adopt. What followed was a stripped back, basic style of play that left us vulnerable through the middle but ensured that our forwards benefited from our directness - and a run of five wins followed.
Yet, the results were not necessarily backed up by good performances where Sunderland controlled the game. In fact, it was against Rochdale where I felt we were given a warning shot; an indicator that we cannot play as open as we did when we face better teams. Whilst Dale impressed with their fast-paced forward passing style, and for large swathes of the game were able to dominate possession, they were ultimately undone because Sunderland simply had more quality on the pitch - namely Aiden McGeady.
As was often the case last season, the individual brilliance of Aiden McGeady dragged Sunderland over the finish line. There was no clear identity of a style of play on the pitch but on this occasion simply getting the ball to Aiden as much as we could reaped rewards - he ended the game with a goal and an assist, this despite the fact he was given a run for his money by the young man making his debut at right back for Rochdale on the night.
The biggest concern was perhaps that Sunderland’s middle two - the experienced duo of Max Power and Grant Leadbitter - struggled to control the game. They were often left chasing after the Rochdale players whose slick passing rendered Sunderland’s midfield useless. It was a reminder that teams with a better quality of player would make us pay if we allowed them to outnumber us in the middle of the park for the sake of playing direct football and getting the ball to Aiden McGeady as often as we possibly could.
Even against Wimbledon - where Sunderland ran out comfortable 3-1 winners - there were concerns about the central midfield duo of Power and Leadbitter. Whilst Grant played well on this occasion, Max did not.
Eventually, against Peterborough on Saturday, we were made to pay.
Posh did their homework and played a diamond in midfield which completely overwhelmed Sunderland’s experienced central pair. They played it around Ross’s side with ease and made use of their best player - Marcus Maddison - who scored two goals and gave our defenders an afternoon to forget.
What’s clear is that Jack Ross has not been able to stem the flow of goals flooding into the back of Sunderland’s net this season; in the eight games played so far we’ve not kept a single clean sheet. Ross has changed his team often, has trialled different systems, yet the same issues with our defending persist. Perhaps the additions of Joel Lynch and Laurens De Bock will go some way to strengthening our back line, but I think it would be fair to suggest that a lack of consistency will always lead to a lack of on-the-pitch resilience.
The performance and result brought it home, to me at least, that Sunderland have no discernible style or pattern of play - not one that I have witnessed, anyways. So what’s the solution? Well, it’s certainly not to be found in persisting with the same thing and hoping for the best, as has been the case since Josh Maja left the club.
Yes, there’s the elephant in the room which is Aiden McGeady’s role in Sunderland’s side. He’s undoubtedly the most talented player in the division, yet there’s a feeling that his inclusion ultimately hinders the ‘team’. Often - and this was most definitely an issue in the latter part of last season too - it becomes all about “what can Aiden do?” instead of our team as a unit having a functional way of playing.
Sunderland’s entire attacking game plan appears to be to get the ball to McGeady as often as we possibly can, and hope something comes off. Short-term this gets results more often than not, but long-term? Working out a cohesive, clear way of playing would make more sense, and would be more beneficial.
Tin hat on, but I feel that you could still get just as much out of McGeady if he was coming on late in games - there’s an argument to be made that there’s little point in having McGeady run around for sixty minutes, competing with fresh full backs that will have watched him play a hundred times in preparation.
As great as McGeady is, it could be argued that he’s far more effective in short bursts - so perhaps coming into games where he’s had the opportunity to read what’s going on and where he’s not having to compete with fresh legs would benefit both Aiden and the team. Not only would that keep him effective - thus, run the legs off our opposition before unleashing having worked out the tactical weaknesses of the opposition - but it’ll lower the risk of injury too.
Sunderland have such a deep squad of good players that it seems nonsensical that we don’t appear to have an obvious style of play which you can hang your hat on. Relying heavily on one player is not smart management. There simply has to be a way that Sunderland can actually develop without having to lean so heavily on a quality player in McGeady, who isn’t getting any younger, whose effectiveness will undoubtedly wane with time and who we cannot expect to solely build our team around if this club has designs on getting back to where we belong as quick as we possibly can.
Simply put, that cannot be the case this time around. Doing so is not healthy over the long term, and I believe having a heavy reliance on one particular player will only see Sunderland struggle to gain a foothold in a promotion race in which many supporters feel we should be setting the pace.
Whether this is recognised, and quickly, is anyone’s guess - early suggestions would indicate that whilst Sunderland have been able to win games, it hasn’t been by overwhelming sides that you’d expect us to blow away should we play in a manner befitting the squad of players that we have at our disposal.