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Balancing risk and reward: Sunderland’s approach to the final months of the League One season

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After the defeat to Coventry City at the weekend there is increasing pressure on manager Phil Parkinson to make changes to our approach to keep our hopes of automatic promotion alive. But what could be changed and why?

Coventry City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images

Listening to the initial reaction from close friends to Sunday’s defeat to Coventry City and combining that with the wider reaction on social media, it seems apparent that there is universal agreement that Sunderland could do with a change ahead of the run-in – but that agreement doesn’t seem to extend to what that change looks like.


Personnel

Let’s go with the simplest form of change first, a like-for-like (or at least very similar) change that see’s Northern Ireland international Kyle Lafferty replace Charlie Wyke up top. Much has been said of the form of Wyke, where the consensus is that the former Bradford City striker has had enough chances to make his mark. But does simply thinking the whole issue is down to one player simply mask other problems with our current setup?

We’ll come on to this in more detail in our tactics discussion, but although I’d argue Wyke does nothing to help himself with his all round play, he is not helped by the way we are setup - especially when we’re exposed by some of the better sides and our front man becomes isolated. A like-for-like change up front may give us a little bit more energy and freshen things up in the short term, but in the longer term this change might lead us back to the issue of playing with a sole striker tasked with playing with their back to goal.

There has also been calls to replace Charlie Wyke with our other Northern Ireland international Will Grigg. This call is surely made out of desperation for a) Phil Parkinson to change something and/or b) for the Will Grigg transfer to the club to finally become a success. If Parkinson goes down this route without a change in tactics there is the potential to at best find ourselves exactly where we were with Jack Ross 12 months ago, using a system that made Grigg an isolated, lonely figure up top.

Our other current option is Antoine Semenyo, who many consider to be more of a wide man but could well be used as the focal point to the team. His brief cameos have shown an ability to make ground when he’s on the ball. This would possibly need a shift in how the team supports the front man in terms of the emphasis now being on keeping possession via moving with the ball as opposed to a target man attempting to make the ball stick and wait for support. I for one would like to see Semenyo be given more of an opportunity to, at the very least, make Sunderland less predictable with an injection of pace.

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Sky Bet Leauge One
Will Grigg celebrating a rare goal against Tranmere Rovers in October 2019
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Tactics

This section needs to begin with the comment that I don’t believe Phil Parkinson will change his tactics for the remaining ten (possibly thirteen with play-offs) games, and considering the run we’ve been on and our defensive record while doing so, I wouldn’t blame him for sticking with his guns. But let’s look at an option or two to provide an alternative while we’re here.

Considering our mix of two target men in Lafferty and Wyke and smaller/quicker forwards in Grigg and Semenyo, would a front two combining one from each group provide a plan B. Those who witnessed Quinn and Phillips in the flesh (myself included) pine for the big man/little man combination from a bygone era, but looking at our personnel this could potentially be an option. Looking ahead to our three away games during March this could be the go to option if we’re struggling to unlock defences who may be happy with settling with a home point against top six opposition.

Going down this route would mean we either sacrifice one of the back three in an effort to increase our threat up front and have Gooch and Maguire utilised as more traditional wide players against the touchline - or by sacrificing one of the wide players and moving the other to a central role behind the front two to preserve our defensive shape.

Sunderland v Rochdale - Sky Bet League One
Antoine Semenyo
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Psychological Approach

The form Sunderland experienced from Phil Parkinson’s first League One game in charge at Wycombe Wanderers up to, and including, Bolton Wanderers at home on Boxing Day, saw a shift into not only our current system of playing three at the back, but also having a team that was incredibly difficult to beat.

The mindset is now all about keeping our shape and defensive structure starting from the top so we’re hard to breakdown and rely on the front three to have enough to open the scoring. At the Stadium of Light this has not been an area of concern as home advantage naturally sees us on the front foot, and we more often than not get the opening goal.

However, the evidence is there to see that the flaws in our attacking play become evident away from home. Purely looking at away games so far in 2020, we have struggled at Fleetwood Town, Milton Keynes Dons, Tranmere Rovers, Portsmouth, Oxford United and Coventry City due to our limitations in the final third. In some of those games we have managed to get out of jail with a moment of genius/long range efforts in games where otherwise we didn’t look like scoring.

There will naturally be a difference on our travels but, especially against some of the bottom half sides there is the potential to taking the shackles off some of the players to support more in the attacking phases as they do at the Stadium of Light.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Lynden Gooch celebrates scoring the winning goal at Milton Keynes Dons
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Risk and Reward

We have ten games remaining of the standard League One campaign and any change at this stage provides risk. Our form and defensive statistics are clearly impressive, but sticking with this formula has the appearance of hoping for the best.

Our alternative plan is to throw as many forwards on in the final ten minutes to cause chaos and hopefully the ball with bounce our way in the box to get a goal. There does not seem to be any joined up thinking where if we appear toothless up front we make a change to rectify that fact.

The reward for improving how we attack the opposition in those ten games, however, could be the difference in not only avoiding a third straight season in League One but also entering the Championship without the need of the play-offs.