As Sunderland find themselves at the lowest point in their history - a mediocre team in English football’s third tier - it is difficult to remember that four years ago it looked as though we were on the path to becoming an established Premier League side under the management of Big Sam. Perhaps the biggest ‘what if?’ moment of the last decade, this side was dismantled over the summer with the loss of its manager, expiration of loans and sale of key players but - for the six months it lasted - Sam Allardyce’s Sunderland gave fans the hope which reminds us why we follow the club.
When Big Sam took over from Dick Advocaat in October, Sunderland were 19th in the table, with only three points on the board, yet to win a game and with the worst defensive record in the league. After a patchy few months during the winter of 2015/16, which included a lengthy experiment with a 3-5-2 formation - which in one game against Watford featured a centre midfield of Yann M’Villa, Fabio Borini and Ola Toivonen (remember him!) - after the January acquisitions of Kone, Kirchhoff, Khazri and N’Doye (and Eboue) Allardyce settled on the successful 4-1-4-1 formation.
Like all Sam Allardyce sides, this Sunderland team was build on a solid defence, and the French-speaking duo of Younes Kaboul and January signing Lamine Kone formed a formidable partnership at the heart of the defence. Kone acted as the more aggressive of the two, stepping out from defence to close down opposition players whilst Kaboul covered for his partner, and for Patrick van Aanholt when the Dutch wing-back made one of his trademark runs up field.
This brings us on nicely to the contrasting role of the two full backs who, despite on paper appearing to both be in a similar mould, played very differently under the management of Big Sam.
Whilst van Aanholt was mainly deployed as an attacking threat which started at left back, Yedlin - who only took over from Billy Jones towards the end of the season - played the role of a standard full back, more cautious in his attacking exploits, although he also had the pace to overlap Fabio Borini - or Dame N’Doye - and cross into the box, such as the ball which found its way to Jermain Defoe for his winner against Chelsea at the Stadium of Light.
The most striking feature of this back four is its balance. The attacking of van Aanholt was countered by Yedlin’s role as a more disciplined full back and Kone and Kaboul’s attributes complimented each other perfectly, a fact that was only really discovered after Kaboul’s departure to Watford in the summer window.
This balance continued throughout the team, and the midfield and attack were both comprised of one static player flanked by two more energetic players who pressed relentlessly, forcing the opposition to go long. Kirchhoff played the best football of his injury-hit career during this half-season and his ability on the ball became more evident against weaker sides, where he was allowed to step forward and take part in attacks - knowing that Cattermole was able to hold his position to cover for the big German.
As I mentioned, the front three acted as a sort of mirror image of the midfield, with Defoe rarely engaging in the pressing which was left to the wingers Khazri and Borini who, along with M’Vila and Cattermole stepping up from midfield, looked to pen opposition defences in, and therefore making them go long, playing into the hands of Kirchhoff, Kone and Kaboul.
With the ball, Khazri made frequent runs from left to right in behind the defence, opening up space for Van Aanholt to overlap, whilst Borini - operating on the same wing as his preferred foot - was more of a traditional wide man, although he did overlap Jermain Defoe when the striker moved into the channels.
See the incident where the Italian followed his own pass to Defoe to win, and then convert, the penalty which was the first of Sunderland’s three goals that afternoon.
For me, there is no greater counter-argument to the myth that Sam Allardyce is (or was) a defensive long ball specialist with this Sunderland side.
It is of course true that Big Sam drastically improved the worst defensive side in the league, and that his version of a 4-3-3 is more accurately described as a 4-1-4-1 since both wingers worked incredibly hard to support their full backs.
But for the most part he played without a target man even though Dame N’Doye had been brought in to be just that, and although long balls were played up for Jermain Defoe to chase in behind - thus allowing the 4 pressing players across the midfield to squeeze up the pitch - this was a tactic only employed when they couldn’t get the ball to Jan Kirchhoff who collected the ball in the middle of the park, allowing the rest of the team to get back into shape before launching a counter attack, mainly though wide players Borini, or N’Doye, and Khazri recieving the ball on the half-turn and running at the opposition defence.
Counter attacking certainly, but this Sunderland side was certainly more than the long ball side many neutrals assume it was. Put simply, defensive teams don’t score three goals against both Chelsea and Everton within the same week.