With Ross Stewart injured, were the club naive not to recruit cover?
I think every single Sunderland fan’s heart dropped the second they heard the news that Ross Stewart had pulled out pre-match through injury.
The Scotland international has been our most crucial player since the start of last season and has directly contributed to eight of our 11 league goals so far this season.
Losing the 26-year-old impacts the team in so many ways, as we lose goals, hold-up play, work rate, as well as his aerial dominance on set pieces, but the most significant issue is, there is NO ONE to replace him.
Sunderland did try to recruit forwards across the transfer window, most notably Nathan Broadhead, but whilst I accept it is difficult to recruit players to come in and battle two in-form strikers, having only two players to fill two positions is problematic at any level of football.
This injury places immense pressure on an inexperienced Ellis Simms, forces Tony Mowbray to change his formation and tactics and also leaves Elliot Embleton as the only player in our squad that scored over five goals last season.
It is easy to say now the injury has occurred, but it seems the club has taken a huge gamble that both strikers would stay fit and are now tasked with three games in seven days where Simms will probably be expected to play as a lone striker role for 90 minutes in each.
Hopefully, Mowbray will be able to find a solution, but if Sunderland were to take a low amount of points in Stewart’s absence, questions will be asked and rightly so.
Tony Mowbray reflects on tonight's defeat at Middlesbrough.— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) September 5, 2022
Full interview... pic.twitter.com/MTn7hF34t4
Is Amad Diallo the best option to replace Stewart to play off Ellis Simms?
Looking at potential options to replace Stewart, one player who gave a credible account of himself off the bench on Monday night was Amad Diallo.
If Sunderland are to play two number 10s behind Simms, Diallo’s pace and dribbling ability could provide balance to the slower but more technical Alex Pritchard.
Patrick Roberts was chosen to initially replace Stewart and Elliot Embleton is likely to be a candidate also alongside Leon Dajaku, but I feel that Diallo’s pace would be refreshing as Sunderland only have Jack Clarke who tends to really go at players at speed.
Of course, as with many of Sunderland’s side, Diallo is inexperienced, but having played for Manchester United and Rangers on the European stage, he has experienced high-intensity matches with crowds with high expectations.
If you were Tony Mowbray, would you choose Roberts, Embleton, Dajaku or Diallo to play behind Ellis Simms on Saturday?
With Dennis Cirkin ruled out with a hamstring injury, it is time for Aji Alese to show what he is capable of!
Another crushing blow for Sunderland fans on Monday night was the loss of Dennis Cirkin to a hamstring injury, a player who has been absolutely tremendous this season.
However unlike our Stewart predicament, Sunderland did recruit a left-footed centre back in the summer in Aji Alese, a player highly thought of amongst West Ham’s fanbase.
Although he has massively lacked minutes in the league so far, the 21-year-old would be the best option to maintain the balance of Sunderland’s back three and avoid Luke O’Nien having to move across on his weaker foot.
From his pre-season displays, it seems as though Alese is less technically gifted than Cirkin, but he is faster and at six feet four, has far more of a presence physically and aerially.
Another option for Mowbray would be Bailey Wright, but I think it would be ridiculous to play three right-footed centre backs in a back three when you have just paid money for a defender the club evidently believes has potential.
Our upcoming three quick-fire matches would be a great chance for Alese to get minutes under his belt and stake a claim to keep that position.
Cirkin’s injury makes it very difficult to switch to a back four, so how could Sunderland set up against Millwall?
Whilst Tony Mowbray moved to a back four during the second half on Monday night, the injury to Dennis Cirkin now means that Sunderland have no fit left-back and also only four fit recognised defenders in Danny Batth, Bailey Wright, Aji Alese and Trai Hume.
Of course, Luke O’Nien has deputised excellently in a three and both Lynden Gooch and Jack Clarke have performed well as wing-backs, but playing as a wing-back is different to playing as a full-back as we are all aware.
Should Mowbray want to move to a four from the start, he would likely have to play Luke O’Nien left-back on his weaker foot, with Lynden Gooch challenged more defensively at right-back in more isolated one-vs-one scenarios.
In my opinion, given that Sunderland have challenged in every match and have been in the game at all times, I would like to see the three-back remain with Alese coming in as a like-for-like, but the decision as to how to go about replacing Stewart is far more challenging.
Alex Neil often played Patrick Roberts or Elliot Embleton alongside Alex Pritchard behind Stewart in Broadhead’s frequent absence.
I think a 5-2-2-1 is probably the easiest way to cope with the two injuries without changing too much.