Alex Neil experiments with formations
Sunderland played the majority of this game at the Suit Direct Stadium with five men in defence, giving Carl Winchester, Danny Batth, and Aji Alese the chance to bank more minutes in the run-up to our season opener against Coventry City on Sunday.
It was nice to see ‘Winiesta’ back in the side, where he generally acquitted himself okay, whilst both Batth and Alese looked assured once they got over the concession of an early opening goal.
Where this formation, which Neil did also use at times last season, came into its own though was in the width it provided. Youngsters Trai Hume and Harrison Sohna played at wing back, and the former in particular proved his positional awareness and technical ability by getting involved on the touchline and at Hartlepool’s back post.
From what we’ve seen in pre-season overall, it seems likely that Neil will plump for a back four to begin our Championship campaign, but being able to play with a back five as well is a welcome addition to our armoury. It gives us much-needed flexibility, whether that be adapting to the different challenges we will face from Championship opponents, or accommodating injuries and fluctuating form across those all-important 46 league games.
Youth gets a chance, again
Largely owing to the precariously thin nature of our squad at this stage of the transfer window, Sunderland’s line-up against Hartlepool was peppered with youthful inexperience.
The aforementioned wing backs, Trai Hume and Harrison Sonha, were joined by Ellis Taylor and Jack Diamond in attacking positions in Alex Neil’s final starting XI of this pre-season.
Given that previous displays against Bradford City and Accrington Stanley had left something to be desired, some of this quartet may well have felt that they could stake a claim to a place in or around the team which kicks off against Coventry on Sunday.
Against hardened League Two opposition, however, they found varying levels of success. Hume and Sohna both appear to be neat ball players, but there is a suspicion that Neil will see them as too lightweight to risk chucking into the cauldron of second-tier English football just yet.
Add to that category Ellis Taylor, who showed glimpses of quality but also drifted out of the game in spells too. He would almost certainly benefit from a lower-league loan spell such as that enjoyed by...
Jack Diamond, who was the pick of the young bunch, winning the penalty from which Sunderland got their goal. He gave the opposition defenders no time to switch off thanks to his tireless, and importantly clever, running. Elliot Embleton should have had him to thank for two goals if he had not blazed over the bar in the first half when Diamond had given him a great opportunity having drawn the Hartlepool goalkeeper out of position.
He may not make the starting XI for Sunday, but Diamond gave all associated with Sunderland a welcome reminder of his qualities in this game.
Elliot Embleton makes a mark
Besides his coolly-taken penalty on the stroke of half time, Elliot Embleton had perhaps the most influence of any Sunderland player on proceedings here.
The quality of these contributions varied rather. Some of his corners were well overhit, but he also put a ball right on the head of Danny Batth in the first half, from which Batth probably should have scored.
Likewise, Embleton made good runs into and around the box, but the goal evaded him from these positions as he shot over or wide of the goal numerous times throughout.
Nonetheless, so much of what the team did flowed through him, and he stepped up when it mattered (as much as these things ever matter in a ‘friendly’ fixture).
His passing and movement, set piece capabilities, and willingness to shoot give him a variety to his game which make him a great asset to the Sunderland squad, especially at this moment when it is light on numbers.
While his performance may not have been enough to displace Alex Pritchard from his presumptive spot in Sunderland’s best starting side, Elliot Embleton will have a vital role to play this season.