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Talking Points: Despite penalty loss, the performance was auspicious for Sunderland

If not for better officiating or a bit more luck, Sunderland would have probably beaten Hull 4-0. We absolutely bossed them, but couldn’t see them off - cause for concern, or cause for optimism?

Sunderland v Hull City - Carabao Cup First Round Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Grigg on Fire?

Let’s get that elephant in the room out the way right at the start: Grigg’s penalty. Look, penalty shoot outs are an absolute lottery and he’s now missed two for us. But in his career he’s scored 22 out of 25 in regulation 90 minutes and to determine a player’s worth on two shoot out misses is, frankly, a joke.

Grigg put in his best performance in a Sunderland shirt since the 5-0 demolition of Tranmere at the SoL last season and had two goals wrongly chalked off. The first was never a foul on the keeper and would have set a dangerous precedent. It’s pretty clear that it is stated in the rules of the game that if you touch the goalkeeper, it is a foul. Well what can you do when he comes charging out at you? Phase shift into air? These are the sort of rules that need to be interpreted correctly, and this was not. On the second, Grigg was level and the finish was crisp.

Either of these go his way, and he’s the hero of the day. Aside from the two goals his movement was a joy to watch, passing sharp and link-up play with Aiden O’Brien in particular auspicious.

Tactical Shift

Throughout pre-season, Phil Parkinson lined up his two ‘inside forwards’ much narrower than he did last season. No longer did they look to overload the channels and run wide anywhere near as much, but stay narrow in the central vertical third of the pitch. This was a clear attempt to improve the lads’ creativity and also provide more support to, what was last season, a central striker far too isolated at the tip of the attack.

On Saturday, however, he changed it up again. Will Grigg was partnered up top by Aiden O’Brien, who explicitly expressed to Parky his wish to play in that role midweek, while Chris Maguire was given licence to roam just behind the pair as the lone number 10.

Early on, it paid dividends. The movement, interchangeable play and pace of our attacks were far too much for Hull to live with. Maguire pulled the strings from deep, linked midfield to attack and released the pair up top into space countless times. O’Brien is a much better outlet when playing as a striker, and not in one of the withdrawn roles. The one-on-one miss was a worry that he did not even test the goalkeeper, but hopefully that’s just down to the rust of barely playing in six months. Just before that, he pulled off a beautiful run in which he trapped the ball, turned a defender with a nice dropped shoulder move then skipped past another two with a Cruyff-turn we haven’t seen since Geads was rightfully frozen out. He offers both physicality and trickery to complement Grigg’s movement and poaching, and allows the Northern Irish international to find space instead of constantly battling with defenders.

Want to unlock Grigg? Give him space and vertical passes either to feet or in behind. Don’t force him back to goal surrounded by 6’ 7” League One brutes.

The Wright Stuff

I think it’s went a bit unheralded, but it’s so good to see Bailey Wright back at full fitness and marshalling a defence again. The Aussie isn’t just an absolute brick wall physically, but a key organiser at the back as his leadership instincts and Championship experience shines through at this level. He may not be the tallest central defender in the league at 6’ 1” but this doesn’t matter as he has the know-how.

We’ve yet to see his customary long-ball yet, with him clearly running off some lack of match fitness and rustiness both due to the lock down and injury – but with Wright at the back and Max Power lining up in front of him, you just know we have the right men to lead this group of lads.

Need to be more Clinical

As aforementioned, we had two perfectly good goals chalked off and two shots cleared off the line so this may seem somewhat harsh. But it remains that we simply failed to see Hull off. O’Brien missed a one-on-one, Maguire sent a sitter wide and we had countless other chances that were just a bit tame considering how often we tore Hull apart.

Parky needs recruits in the final third, and he knows it. But we still need to work on the finishing and penetration in these areas should we want to be champions. It is refreshing, however, to see us absolutely control and dictate the flow, possession and territory in a game against what will surely be promotion rivals come May.

Even during that eight-game winning streak under Ross and the brilliant purple patch by the turn of the year under Parky we still failed to really dominate and dictate the game. Today we did, and against no slouches either. Maguire’s move to a ten role forced their midfielders back and allowed Max Power to come into his own and control everything in the middle of the park – while George Dobson occupied the deeper role, breaking up play and marking Honeyman – who was absolutely terrible in the 90 – out of the game.

Parky’s Subs

This is the biggest worry for me. The above issue will sort itself out should a defender be and inch either way or a lino actually be able to make a competent decision at this level. But the game was naturally petering out at some point mid-way into the second-half. Players such as Maguire and Dobson weren’t in it as much and seemed to be tiring – which is entirely understandable – and Hull grew into the game through a plethora of set-piece chances as a result.

So, be proactive. Take the game by the scruff of the neck and inject some fresh legs into midfield. Then change up the approach up top, maybe revert to a 3-4-3 and push the channels instead of the middle third. Or drop a defender and introduce more width up top. Even when Hull got back into the game we totally dominated and controlled it. With this in mind, it was disappointing to see him make the subs 15 minutes too late – and then when he did, do a like-for-like.

I’ll get this off my chest too. Lynden Gooch is not a number ten. It is not his game and stop trying to stick him in there, Parkinson. It’d also have been nice to see Dan Neil involved or at least Jack Diamond in the 18 as he offers pace and dynamism we were sorely lacking on the bench. Hull were tired and imagine him coming on for Luke O’Nien, who was clearly fatigued, to force them back and stretch their defence?

Parkinson’s lack of ability to see where we are ailing, and being able to either be pro-active or change it efficiently, is a huge worry going forward.

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