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SAFC Teams of the 21st Century: How Bruce masterminded Sunderland’s highest finish of the 2010s

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He might be a manager remembered sourly by some Sunderland fans, but Steve Bruce’s blueprint for success made a lot of good memories during his time on Wearside as he led us a top-half finish in the Premier League. Philip Butler talks us through precisely how he managed it.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Chelsea - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

In this look-back at the Sunderland sides of the last decade, Steve Bruce’s team of the 2010-11 season was one, ironically, that I almost overlooked.

Not merely because the former Manchester United player is now in charge of that lot up the road - or even because many of our own at the summer transfer window of 2011 as the beginning-of-the-end of Sunderland’s Premier League lifespan - but because it is difficult to nail down exactly how this team set up. Regardless, it would be an oversight on my part if I omitted the squad which achieved Sunderland’s highest placed finish this decade, so here goes:

The main reason the set-up of Steve Bruce’s side is difficult to ascertain is because of the number of different players who not only played regularly, but also operated in a number of different positions.

Over the course of the season, eighteen players made ten or more starts; players such as Kieran Richardson and Ahmed Elmohamady played a number of games in both midfield and defence. However, despite the frequent chopping and changing of personnel - mainly due to injury and suspension - a number of common trends can be identified in how the former Wigan gaffer set up his Sunderland side.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Manchester City - Stadium of Light Photo by Steve Drew - PA Images via Getty Images

First of all, for the vast majority of the season Sunderland played 4-4-2 - even away at sides such as Chelsea (where, of course, they won 3-0). The exception to this was later in the season, after the sale of Darren Bent and the acquisition of Stephane Sessegnon when the remaining strikers were injured, leaving Sessegnon to play the role of lone frontman in a 4-1-4-1 formation. But Bruce’s first choice team certainly set up in a 4-4-2 shape.

Due to this consistent formation, the fundamental tactical roles themselves were fairly consistent even if the names of those playing in them were not. The defence was a fairly standard flat back four with neither full back offering a huge threat going forward. Nedum Onuoha and Phil Bardsley both had the tendency to sit fairly narrow when Sunderland attacked, especially the right back, who left the right midfielder - be that Elmohamady or Richardson, to give width to the side going forward.

Whilst the right midfield spot was taken up by an old-school winger, the left midfielder was more often a playmaker - fan-favourites Steed Malbranque and Bolo Zenden frequently started from the left before cutting inside to create chances for the forwards. This movement inside made up for the static defensive midfielder, more often Lee Cattermole but David Meyler and then Jack Colback were also used, who held their position even when Sunderland attacked. Also in the centre of midfield, Jordan Henderson played the box-to-box role he has resumed for Liverpool over the last 12 months. Even back then, Hendo was an omnipresent force in a Premier League midfield - he started all but one league game.

Up front, the first choice duo was Danny Welbeck alongside either Darren Bent or Asamoah Gyan. Although both forwards ran the channels well, this movement was more pronounced by Welbeck who drifted out left into the space vacated by Malbranque. Welbeck was also the man asked to drop in and support the midfield, especially when playing against sides which used three players in the middle of the park.

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Sunderland’s rear guard sat fairly deep, with a narrow back four and both wide midfielders also dropping back to support their full backs when necessary. In truth, the shape in defence was often a 5-3-1-1 as Elmohamady, who could also play at full back, would drop back into right back whilst Nedum Onuoha, who made a handful of appearances at centre half, tucked inside. As mentioned before, the second striker also dropped onto the opposing team’s defensive midfielder.

Despite the deep defensive line, Sunderland’s midfield and second striker worked hard to press the opposition, looking to mainly force them wide so that the Black Cats’ physical players in the centre of defence could clear. These clearances were mainly aimed at finding the two strikers down the channels, a tactic which allowed Sunderland to play without a target man and was successful even when Sessegnon was the lone forward - such as the game against Bolton where the Beninese playmaker assisted both goals to ensure Sunderland confirmed their Premier League survival.

Although the front two - especially that of Welbeck and Gyan - linked up well together, they were far from isolated from the rest of Sunderland’s team. Whichever player started on the left was always instructed to get forward in support of the two forwards, whilst Jordan Henderson was constantly making supporting runs up to and beyond the second striker.

When Sunderland secured possession of the ball they were effectively playing with two forwards and two attacking midfielder. Like Sam Allardyce’s team half a decade later, the strength of this side was in attacking transitions and getting players in support of a genuine goalscorer up front.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Bolton Wanderers - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Ultimately Sunderland were fairly fortunate to finish in the top half of the Premier League, a three-nil win at already-relegated West Ham on the final day and a Somen Tchoyi hat trick against Newcastle saw Sunderland move up three places on the final weekend, this despite the season being derailed somewhat following Darren Bent’s departure in January when Sunderland sat sixth in the table.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of the year came at Stamford Bridge, and the first two goals show the trademarks of the side. First Nedum Onuoha’s narrow positioning allowed him to pick the ball up and weave through the Chelsea defence, while Asamoah Gyan’s second saw the Ghanaian poacher finish off a great move started by the playmaker Zenden, who combined with Welbeck dropping deep and Henderson making a bursting run from midfield.

It was probably Sunderland’s best team goal of the season, and the fact that none of those four players were still at the club the following season explains why, little more than twelve months after the win at Chelsea, Steve Bruce was sacked and replaced by Martin O’Neill.