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Why Sunderland should move to three at the back against Lincoln

Sunderland face Lincoln in the first leg of their League One play-off semi-final. Matthew Crichton discusses why he feels Lee Johnson should revert back to a back-three. How do you think Sunderland should line up against Lincoln?

Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Why change from Lee Johnson’s frequently used 4-2-2-2 system?

The key problem Lee Johnson currently has is that Sunderland are failing to keep clean sheets. Once the best defence in League One, the Black Cats have failed to keep a clean sheet in 10 matches and have only won two of them.

Every Sunderland fan understands that Johnson has been dealt a ridiculously difficult hand with our defensive injury crisis, as losing the likes of Jordan Willis and Dion Sanderson is having a highly damaging effect on results.

As a result of these issues, I believe Johnson should go back to a 3-4-3 system that he has used many times during matches this season.

This system is very familiar to the players and is one that has proved to work defensively for the team, plus it provides an added central defender to a currently struggling back two. Also, It enables Johnson to utilise two excellent wing-back options, as well as to push Sunderland’s most dangerous attackers into narrower inside-forward roles where they shoot more.

If Sunderland can do their defensive basics right and finally keep a much needed clean sheet, it would place the team in an excellent position going into the second leg at the Stadium of Light.

Sunderland v Accrington Stanley - Sky Bet League One
Sunderland have conceded 15 goals in their last 10 matches.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

A three-man defence would benefit the struggling Bailey Wright

Despite Luke O’Nien spending most of this season being shoehorned in at central defence, Sunderland’s most experienced defender Bailey Wright has been the team’s biggest issue.

The ex-Bristol City captain has looked a yard off the space and a shadow of his former self, since returning from injury against Wigan in April. Moving back to a three-man defence would benefit the Australian international massively, as he has previously thrived in the deeper sitting role both this season and last season.

Wright has looked shaky in a two of late and looks incredibly vulnerable in one-vs-one scenarios, so added support around him would be beneficial.

Tom Flanagan’s return from injury is a boost, simply just to have a specialist central defender in that position, as he played 45 minutes in the under-23s recent 1-1 draw with Stoke.

Also, Conor McLaughlin has managed 45-60 minutes in recent matches, so he is another option to move into the three, a role he plays regularly with Northern Ireland.

I think it is likely O’Nien will remain in defence given Flanagan and McLaughlin’s lack of sharpness, but one of two stepping in to make a three-man central defence would give Sunderland the added protection they desperately require.

Sunderland v Northampton Town - Sky Bet League One
Bailey Wright has struggled since he returned to the Sunderland starting XI.
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sunderland have two excellent wing-back options in Lynden Gooch and Denver Hume!

Another excellent reason to swap to a formation that includes wing-backs is that Sunderland possess two excellent options in Lynden Gooch and Denver Hume.

Gooch reminds me of Leeds’ Stuart Dallas, a flexible player who thrives in multiple positions whether he is working hard defensively or part of the attack. The American thrives in one-vs-one scenarios and possesses brilliant energy which enables him to burst up and down the flank.

His work rate and strength make him a brilliant option as a wing-back, plus he is probably Sunderland’s best crosser excluding Aiden McGeady and Jordan Jones. Gooch played in this position at times under Phil Parkinson and has been used as a right-back by Lee Johnson when Sunderland change to a more attacking approach.

On the other flank, you would have Denver Hume, who has been excellent since returning from injury and has played his best football at Sunderland as a wing-back. The 22-year-old also thrives in one-vs-one scenarios and loves bursting forward to swing crosses into the box. His defending has improved massively and he has provided stability in a position that has been a clear weak spot for Sunderland this season through Callum McFadzean.

Gooch and Hume would provide Sunderland with pace and energy down the flanks, which would give the team the option to go down either flank knowing there is a player there who can beat a player and deliver a cross into the box.

Sunderland v Northampton Town - Sky Bet League One
Denver Hume has started Sunderland’s last four matches.
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A front three of Charlie Wyke, Aiden McGeady and Jordan Jones!

Skipping past the discussion of who will play in central midfield, which will likely be captain Max Power and Josh Scowen, the other side of the tactical switch is how will it affect Sunderland’s attack?

A clear con of losing an attacker is that Charlie Wyke would be more isolated, but Ross Stewart is struggling with a hamstring issue and Aiden O’Brien is massively out of form. Lynden Gooch would likely be the option to play slightly behind Wyke should Johnson stick with a 4-2-2-2.

Having said that, two of Sunderland’s most exciting players, Aiden McGeady and Jordan Jones, would be closer to Wyke in this system and they are capable of scoring goals. With wing-backs pushed high, in theory, that would enable McGeady and Jones to collect the ball in more narrow areas around the box where they can shoot.

Those on Wearside have seen this season that both are very capable of scoring from range and they are easily Sunderland’s most exciting talents on the ball.

Jack Diamond has proved he is an excellent dribbler and possesses phenomenal pace, but his end product has been inconsistent and he has lacked goals, meaning he does warrant a start in such an important match.

This front three are arguably Sunderland’s biggest goal threats and the most likely to win the match for the team (Chris Maguire would make for a brilliant impact sub also).

One upfront may isolate Wyke more, but it is a small price to pay if Sunderland can keep a clean sheet and stop giving away cheap goals.

Of course, it has to be said that this is simply my opinion and Lee Johnson will have his own plan on how to fix our defensive issues, but I believe switching back to a three would be a step in the right direction temporarily.

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