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Fulham v Sunderland: Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round

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Controlling The Controllables: Where can Sunderland be proactive as the season draws to a close?

There are still plenty of games remaining as we head towards the tail-end of the season, so where can Sunderland act proactively to ensure we’re maximising every opportunity? We asked our Twitter followers for their suggestions...

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Work hard off the pitch ahead of the summer

@WarrenBedeBrown: I am hoping the Owners and KS are being proactive behind the scenes and planning for next season. This season has shown us all that the Club are heading in the right direction so we must push on! Acceptable they did not ‘gamble’ in Jan but huge Summer ahead!

It goes without saying that one of the big talking points from supporters this week has been with the shape of the squad on the back of the January transfer window.

Many supporters have conceded that the decision to not sign another striker alongside Joe Gelhardt after Ross Stewart got injured and Ellis Simms was recalled by Everton was a mistake.

Others have shone a light on the gap in midfield left behind by Corry Evans, who suffered a season-ending injury in the game against Middlesbrough, and feel a replacement wasn’t adequately acquired.

Those concerns are more than valid, though in the case of the Evans debate I feel like we have options already in the squad... more on that later.

When the January window ended I was happy with our business, and having heard Speakman explain our transfer strategy I was content with the explanation for how we ended up leaving ourselves short. We have a specific list of targets, we had a number of bids in place, but nothing came off. We weren’t even considering any free agents because they didn’t fit the mold, and whilst some may argue that something is better than nothing, they’re very set on the way they work and I’m happy to go along for the ride.

That said, the actual details on who we targeted and how good those offers to the potential selling clubs were aren’t known, and that’s where I’m stuck on this issue.

Of the options we had, would it have made sense to push the boat out slightly on one in order to make sure we brought one of them in?

I can’t help but look at how well Nathan Broadhead is doing at Ipswich, either - I say this with the benefit of hindsight, of course, but I feel like that would have been a sensible signing, and the opportunity was there because he wanted to come. He didn’t cost a fortune and would have slotted straight into this team.

Lessons have to be learned in the summer, and there won’t be anywhere near as much good grace from supporters if there’s even a hint of lacking ambition - next year supporters will be expecting the club to build for a proper promotion push, and that means we have to be active in the transfer window to ensure whoever is in charge has all the tools they need at their disposal.

The current season certainly isn’t over yet, and the playoffs are slipping away but still reachable, so planning for both outcomes should be in place even before the last ball of the season is kicked.

The other thing to think about is contracts - tying down key players (like Ross Stewart) and young prospects (like Dan Neil) should be near the top of the list, because the sooner we can draw a line under all of that business, the better.

We’re a proactive, forward-thinking football club and I hope the hunger to succeed is just as strong in the offices at the Academy of Light as it is amongst the supporters in the stands.

Fulham v Sunderland: Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Tighten up in the middle

@Fantanafest73: We have no steel in the middle. Corry Evans gave that bit of insurance in front of the back 4. Somebody needs to step up in that role. We’re too lightweight and Dan Neil/Michut are being found out

As many people have pointed out, we lack steel in the centre of the park, and for me that’s perhaps the biggest reason why we’ve lost the last three games.

In each of them we’ve picked a weak, powderpuff midfield and put them up against physical Championship campaigners - it gave us no chance of really winning any of those games, because physically the players we picked weren’t able to compete.

Away at QPR we started with Luke O’Nien in the middle and he put in a man of the match performance and scored a goal - one that was so notable that it was deemed worthy of significant praise in match reports written by Rangers fans after the game.

Why he hasn’t been seen in the middle of the park is a mystery to me, but it’s something that Tony Mowbray has to be seriously considering as we look to fill the hole left behind since Corry Evans got injured.

We’ve conceded too many goals recently and I think the lack of a barrier in the front of the defence and goalkeeper has been a chief cause, so perhaps giving Pierre Ekwah a more prominent role has to be on the table too.

When he signed we were told he was a defensive midfielder who is proficient in carrying the ball forward and working between both boxes, so at some point I’d love to see him get a proper chance to show what he can do.

With some tough games coming up, I’m hoping we see Sunderland go back to basics in a lot of ways, and shoring up the midfield should give us at least half a chance to create a platform from which the rest of the team can build from.

Queens Park Rangers v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Unleash our young hopefuls

@FreshBot3000: Would like to see fringe players get a lot more time in the last 10 matches. If playoffs are done (they are pretty much), and we are safe (98% sure we won’t fall into bottom 3), let’s see what Jewi, Lehaji, Ba, Ekwah et al can do.

Of all the feedback we received it was the introduction of our young fringe players that people were most eager to see from Sunderland between now and the end of the season (I wrote about this point pretty extensively earlier in the week, so give it a read if you haven’t seen it already).

Despite the free-flowing football from Sunderland’s attack line of Amad, Clarke and Roberts being fantastic more often than not this season, there is a niggling feeling bubbling away underneath it all that our persistence with using the same players more often than not has come at the cost of the development of several other young players.

We know Jewison Bennette, Abdoullah Ba and Isaac Lihadji are talented players, but we haven’t seen anywhere near enough from them to say with any confidence what we definitively think of their ability.

With Amad and Joe Gelhardt leaving the club in a couple of months it will be the players that remain that have to carry the can going forward, and the hope is that the players sitting behind them in the pecking order can eventually replace them and even surpass them as important first team players in the Sunderland squad.

We’re 17 points clear of the relegation zone, so with eleven games remaining there has to be more faith placed in the players who have yet to get a fair chance to prove their worth.

Sunderland v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Experiment with our formation

@shanehagan24: 3-5-2 - Patterson, Ballard, Batth, O’Nien, Hume, Clarke, Neil, Michut, Ba, Roberts, Amad. We play against 3 man midfields most weeks and get outnumbered in the middle. Hume and Clarke as wing backs.

As Nick Barnes pointed out earlier this week in his monthly Roker Report blog, Tony Mowbray feels that we have no plan B and, as such, sticking by plan A is the way forward.

After a shocking couple of weeks for us in terms of results you have to think that a manager with all of the experience Mowbray has will be more willing to try something new.

We’ve played a back three plenty of times this season, and we have players capable of playing wing back, so maybe trying something a little bit different could help to turn our form around without impacting too much on the quality of football we play.

We can all sympathise with the lack of a proper centre forward in the squad right now, but we have to try at least to be more tactically flexible, as teams have seen the way we play and have worked out how to neutralise any threat we hold.

If we can spring a surprise on Norwich at the weekend, who knows - we might win!


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