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Balancing Act: How can Tony Mowbray tweak the side to get Sunderland firing again?

Sunderland haven’t been at their fluid, stylish best recently - so what changes can the gaffer make to address the balance of the side?

Photo by Roland Krivec/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Sunderland have struggled to find the net with regularity in recent times. We’ve scored just four in the last five league games, with three coming against Norwich alone, and it’s been well-documented that we haven’t seen a single goal from a recognised striker this term.

In the same period, we’ve conceded eight, albeit four came in the wake of Dan Neil’s controversial sending off against Middlesbrough. Either way, the return of four points is pretty disappointing.

So what’s going wrong? And how do we fix it?

Lack of width

The first area which I believe is hindering the team’s performance is out wide, or rather, the fact that we aren’t getting out wide enough.

Last season, we tended to employ a combination of Jack Clarke, Amad Diallo and Patrick Roberts in attacking midfield, with Amad and Roberts dovetailing beautifully on the ball and spending most games virtually holding hands for 90 minutes. All three - much like the oft-used combo of Clarke, Jobe, Roberts this term - love to cut inside, attack the box and zip short passes in and around the middle third of the pitch.

However, last season our full backs were mainly Dennis Cirkin or Aji Alese on the left (both left-footed) and Lynden Gooch or Trai Hume on the right (both right-footed). Lynden Gooch in particular was fond of an overlapping run beyond his winger, which drew defenders away and gave Roberts/Amad more space to attack centrally as well as giving them an option for recycling the ball out wide. Gooch was in the 70th percentile for crossing of full backs in the whole league last season, proving his eagerness to deliver the ball from wide on the right. By contrast, Trai Hume’s new inverted role means he’s in just the 54th percentile for the same stat this season - it’s clear that our full backs aren’t pushing beyond the wide men like they used to.

Adding in the fact Niall Huggins, a right-footer, has been deputising at left back for the injured Cirkin, you have a team with four wide men who are all more comfortable taking the ball inside, for various reasons. Lacking a traditional left foot/right foot combo at full back really highlights the lack of width going forward, and especially isolates Roberts who now is missing his partner in the middle in Amad as well as any support bombing forward from his right back.

Cirkin’s return to fitness hopefully means this problem can be partially eased, though Hume’s inverting from right back could still cause issues - but we’ll get to that.

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Time for Cirkin to reclaim his starting berth?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Overloading the midfield

Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah - two men in midfield. Jobe likes to drop deeper and get on the ball - that’s three. Then, with Luke O’Nien often stepping up with and without the ball, we have four men in the central area. It becomes five if Trai Hume tucks in as he often does, then throw in Huggins drifting a little centrally to get on his favoured right foot, and we can have up to six men in the middle of the park at once! That’s half the team!

How can we expect our middle men to have the space to get on the ball, make runs and find gaps, when we effectively clog up the centre of the pitch? Further forward, it’s little wonder our attackers, Patrick Roberts especially, have struggled to stretch defences and create openings at times, as they’re outnumbered by defenders and lacking real options in players getting forward to trouble the opposition.

Luton Town v Sunderland: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final Second Leg
Roberts has cut an isolated figure of late
Photo by Andrew Kearns - CameraSport via Getty Images

Jack Clarke, of course, is proving impossible to stop for many Championship defences regardless of these issues, so it’s not like the team is incapable of performing well in spite of the lack of balance I’d argue we’re seeing. But just because Clarke can thrive, doesn’t mean we should be quick to point the finger at Roberts for his underwhelming returns so far this season.

Were Trai Hume to return to a more orthodox full back role, that would massively benefit Roberts in my view, as he’d have more bodies around him to play off with those little give-and-goes we’ve seen him employ to great effect in red and white.

In fact, even if Hume were to just limit his forays inside - perhaps interchanging with O’Nien where one goes into midfield, and the other stays out, rather than both at once - I believe we’d see a greater level of width in the team, which in turn would free up our wingers to attack with a little extra support around them.

Overall, we’re still in a pretty decent position. We’re scoring more and conceding less per game so far than we did in all of last season, and we’re well within range of the top 6 heading towards the busy Christmas period. With Cirkin back, and a couple of tweaks centrally, I feel we’ll start to see more from our forward players and really cement ourselves as playoff contenders.

But what do I know? Give us your own opinions down below - what would YOU do in Mowbray’s shoes?


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