Square pegs for square holes has been my view on formations and starting elevens through my 20-plus years as a wannabe manager from the stands; an approach that made the Phil Parkinson Sunderland era unbearable to say the very least.
With Lee Johnson's appointment came the refreshing opportunity of a clean slate, and potential changes to the formation, tactical approach and playing philosophy.
I can’t speak for all readers, but I’m extremely excited to see the back of Diamond at RWB, Gooch at LWB, Power and Dobson expected to play box to box roles (sigh).
A more attacking approach has seen a return to four at the back, the return of more creative players and play through the middle encouraged as opposed to the approach of whip the ball in, hope for the best.
With these new changes in place, one question springs to mind.
What’s our strongest eleven?
Well, please indulge me for a moment, and take a look at the 4-3-3 line up I decided on.
Goalkeeper: Lee Burge
In goal, I’ve gone for Burge… because Remi Matthews. There’s an argument to be made for Anthony Patterson here, but I’d like to think he would benefit from a loan elsewhere (see Jordan Pickford). I think any player in any position benefits from a run of games in a starting 11. He’s one for the future for sure.
Defence: McLaughlin, Willis, Wright, Hume
Our current crop of lads donning the red and white shirt at the moment present more questions than answers.
The area on the pitch that presents the fewest questions, however, is defence.
I believe a back four of Hume, Wright, Willis and McLaughlin seems to make the most sense.
The importance of Willis’s return can’t be understated.
One thing I did particularly enjoy watching under Phil Parkinson was Willis’s overlapping runs from the RCB role in the back five, and his crosses (whilst not always paying off) were causing issues for League One defenders.
There’s no reason we can’t see something like this in a back four, however.
Those of you who recall the Checkatrade Trophy final will remember Matt Clarke causing us endless worries throughout the game.
Hume and Wright have a place in any format we set up in and, in regards to McLaughlin, while he’s not the most attacking and is liable to make a mistake or two, he’s shown this season that he can be dependable when given a run of games.
Midfield – O’Nien, Leadbitter, Embleton
There are no fewer than six midfielders that could potentially line up in a midfield three or as the middle two in the park, depending on your formation preference.
Leadbitter, Power, Scowen, Dobson, Embleton and Winchester – and that’s not including the likes of Gooch, O’Nien and McGeady who have played / could play further forward in a midfield three.
The curious case of O’Nien presents a nice problem for Johnson. Does Luke play right back or does he play in midfield? And if he does play in midfield, where does he play?
There are arguments for Luke playing as either an 8 or a 10, with an 8 being the most likely.
The biggest issue we have in midfield is limited options due to too many players being too alike.
Power, Dobson and Leadbitter all offer far too much of the same flavour of football.
With the introduction of O’Nien, we get the energy we’ve sorely been lacking in midfield and the ability to carry the ball.
However, we do then lose our reliable performer at RB/RWB.
I’m also a big fan of Embleton. Elliot provides us with creativity, ability on both feet, delivery from set pieces and importantly, he has an eye for goal from free kicks.
Attack – Diamond, Wyke, McGeady
Again, so many questions.
The issue of Wyke is a hot topic at the moment. I think any sensible-minded Sunderland fan would want Wyke to start upfront in a strongest starting XI.
The biggest question I asked myself when mapping out our strongest 11 was, is there a place for Grigg?
Records show that Grigg’s success stories have come when playing with 2 up top. Is there a place for Grigg alongside Wyke?
While we have seen this in spells under both Ross and Parkinson, a change in style, an eagerness to play through the middle and the introduction of more creative players may well provide both Wyke and Grigg the delivery they need to start finding the back of the net regularly.
Ultimately, I am looking for an excuse to shoehorn Grigg in when really, I should accept that it simply isn’t working here and he would be better elsewhere.
I believe there’s no place for Graham, in this starting 11 or as part of the squad full stop. He offers nothing we don’t already possess and ultimately, it’s wages that would be better spent on a younger, exciting prospect that could offer us a pacey option upfront, something I still think we’re sorely lacking.
This, unfortunately, is a case elsewhere in the squad with the likes of Dobson who in my opinion, offers us nothing beneficial and is taking up both wages and a place in the squad.
I opted for a front three, and again, there are many options (Wyke, O’Brien, Grigg, Graham, Diamond, McGeady, Embleton, Gooch, and Maguire).
The individual qualities of both McGeady and Diamond give us options out wide. McGeady (while frustrating to watch) has a game-winning moment in him, and Diamond offers us a direct approach and dribbling ability to beat players, something I believe Lynden Gooch has sorely been lacking for years at SAFC.
The beauty in the question of our best starting XI is that at this time more than ever, everyone’s answers will be different, given the options we have and the number of players we have on the books who can play in different positions.
While I’m sure I don’t have the answer, hopefully, big Lee Johnson does.
Haway the lads.