What a time to be a Sunderland fan eh?
Living in a pandemic, we’ve just sacked our manager, are possibly on the cusp of new ownership, and are playing possibly the worst football in our entire history.
However, despite all of this, there is still a glimmer of hope that we can still achieve our ultimate goal of promotion – however I must stress this is due to the clear drop in quality of the league we’re playing in.
As I watched a Sunderland side (still with the ghost of Parky lingering) struggle to draw against the worst defensive side in the league, I couldn’t help but focus on the only thing that will definitely remain somewhat the same for the rest of the season – the playing squad itself.
I feel any new manager looking at us will know that we can definitely defend as good as any side in the league, but the ultimate problem is going forward. So in that mind, I have drawn up my side based on current availability to see what could alter these issues.
Firstly, it was clear as soon as we moved to a back four that we started to cause Burton more problems, and the pressure told in the result of Max Power’s goal. As this is the case, I feel it is time to return to the tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation of old.
The first decision would be easy: Lee Burge comes straight in for Matthews. Bar a few good saves against Fleetwood, he just has not grasped his number one opportunity, and I would even argue that Anthony Patterson deserves to be considered more, as he coped just as well against the same opposition in the EFL (Pizza) Trophy.
Next, due to injuries to O’Nien and Willis, this is where I feel we may need to experiment and be bold enough to trust the quality in our ranks. Although his performances have not been the best recently, Bailey Wright has to go straight into the team; just based on the fact you will know he will give 110% and may benefit from playing in a formation he has more familiarity with.
Alongside him is a controversial pick, Conor McLaughlin. As mentioned, Willis has had an ongoing injury this season which has prevented him from reaching the levels of quality as last. Add to this, the fact I feel McLaughlin has arguably been the most improved player this season for us.
Many people will point out the fact he may not have the pace or strength to deal with the brash nature of League One strikers, but I feel he has the experience to help with his position decisions which would combat this issue.
Also, the reason I select McLaughlin is due to the fact I have selected Tom Flanagan at left back. Yes, I know that this is madness - a centre back at left back, and a right back in the middle... maybe 2020 has taken its toll on me... but there is a method to this.
Flanagan has experience at left back in his Burton days - he can maraud forward with those gangly legs, with Wright to clear up behind if needs be and hopefully avoid a repeat of Charlton. Essentially, I feel he could continue the overlapping role that Willis completed last year for us; just on the opposite side and generate overloads to open up space for our attackers.
To complete our defence, due to O’Nien potentially being out for months we would be left with either Dion Sanderson or Jack Diamond. For me, Diamond has to play. It would show the boldness required of team wanting to attack and kill games from the get go.
Many may worry about his defence qualities, but I watched his performance as a defensive winger in the Conference Play Off Final for Harrogate and he was regimented, and just as effective on the break which resulted in his goal in that game.
Moving forward into midfield, I believe although there has been a lot of talk of Scowen, and whether he is best suited attacking/defending. In my opinion when I watch him, I believe he is conflicted himself. His natural approach is to be defensive, but Parky has been pushing him to be attacking and the fact his has missed a number of chances by just arriving late shows a possible hesitation in his game.
Despite all of this he has to go into the team as first choice midfielder, but remove the complexities to his game and bring him back to his bread and butter – as a scrappy ball-winning midfielder. I think he could be in the ilk of a Seb Larsson back in the day – decent at set pieces, with a lot of energy and hassling his opponents for the full 90.
Alongside him is where there is a decision to make. Firstly, I’m afraid I don’t feel George Dobson can be anywhere near the conversation as his performance (bar Fleetwood in the Trophy) has just not be of the level required for promotion. So that would leave our boy Grant, or our captain Max Power.
I generally worry for Max, because his Sunderland career has just gone as easy as it should have for him. He came as a box to box general who can score screamers and occasionally bombs into the box. We saw this in his first few games, then the red cards came and ruined his confidence. Just as this was building back up, Jack Ross started to be more defensive to protect points - and this just got worse under Phil Parkinson.
With Grant, he has been the ultimate professional and is probably one of a few players the entire fanbase will be behind and will back 100% at the moment. We all know how good he is at reading play, and his goal against Doncaster was a timely flashback of what he is capable of when striking a ball outside the box.
Based on everything I have seen this season, I do feel we need a general in the middle of the pitch. I believe Leadbitter will perform this role better than Power - win the ball back, play the simple pass and push the team forward, whilst having the vision to see the entire game around him.
On the front three behind the striker, again, I believe I have may have made decisions that will raise an eyebrow or two.
Firstly, on the left - as there is no Gooch until possibly the New Year, and mystery still surrounds whether Aiden McGeady has been registered or not - I have gone to push forward Denver Hume.
With Hume this season, I feel his defensive work has improved exponentially, and he now feels like a League One player. However, he has also probably been our main source of attacking intent this season with his direct running at defences; but I do believe his crossing needs to be looked at again, albeit he put a lovely cross for Power’s goal against Burton.
Hume playing as our left winger would allow him to focus on the attacking aspects of his game, but also let him have a clear understanding of how to drop back in when defending and help protect Flanagan should he go on one of those driving runs forward; by fully utilising his pace to help us recover in possible counter attacking positions.
On the right side of the midfield, I would have to go for Chris Maguire.
I feel the best football Maguire played for us was when he was part of a front four at the beginning of Ross’ reign where he was part of the McGeady/Gooch-Honeyman-Magure-Maja combo. With an overlapping fullback in Diamond, he would be able to linger behind and be ready for a pull back to curl a cross into the box, which has already resulted in a goal or two this season.
Behind the striker, I feel there is one only player made for this position at the club and that is Elliot Embleton. There’s a sense of expectation on him, as he has been talked up to be one of the best creative players at the club and would probably be playing at a higher level by now if not for the injury nightmare he has had. I feel that a creative midfielder from your own youth ranks that has the ability to put in dangerous crosses with either foot needs to be walking into this team.
Now, the striker situation. With Wyke possibly being injured and Kimpioka out for the rest of this calendar year, this would leave us with three options that have scored a grand total of ZERO goals in the League, despite having reputations of doing so in the past.
In Graham, Aiden O’Brien and Grigg I do feel sorry for them as they have had to feed of minimal service as a result of the formation played by Parkinson, but all three have also missed sitters. However, I feel a striker needs 3 or 4 chances to get themselves set to take a chance as a result of the level we are playing at (No Defoe/Maja first time scorers available I’m afraid). Also, these sitters normally have come after large portions of the game where they received minimal service, and I can understand how they can be caught off guard.
Coming onto my decision, I feel the change in formation will help all three, however, I have not been convinced by O’Brien at all in his performances this season, and he would probably at the back of the queue.
As I have selected Embleton in support, I feel the best suited candidate would be Grigg.
I feel he has more pace than Graham, and we are yet to see him play in a team where he is fed the odd defence-splitting ball, which I feel Maguire and Embleton are capable of; not to mention the added attacking play from Diamond and Hume on the flanks.
All in all, I feel we need to try something different in our team.
I hope the new manager will have a number of fresh ideas to try and breathe attacking arrogance into a team that should be more than capable of challenging at the top of the league. Hopefully time will tell, and here’s to another rugged 1-1 draw against the bottom team Wigan this weekend whilst we wait for that Breaking News bulletin telling us who is going to be the next man to try and rescue the remnants of our promotion push.