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Is going back to basics key to turning Sunderland’s form around?

Following some indifferent performances and results, Ewan Bowman believes a back-to-basics approach is needed.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It’s been a strange season in more ways than one. At the time of writing, we are only three points from the playoff positions, yet we have already lost 12 games – the same amount of games that we have won so far.

To put that into context, we lost 13 league games throughout the whole of last season.

Sunderland sacked head coach Tony Mowbray on the 4th of December, 2023, having won two of his last nine games. We were sitting in 9th, three points from the play offs.

Before Mowbray's sacking, performances had dipped significantly, which was – in part, at least – why the club acted.

Sunderland v Huddersfield Town - Sky Bet Championship
Tony Mowbray as Sunderland head coach.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

On the 18th of December, 2023, Sunderland appointed Michael Beale – a decision that was unpopular amongst many fans.

Since his appointment, he has been in charge for six league games with two wins, one draw and three defeats. He also oversaw a 3-0 defeat against Newcastle, during which we didn’t lay a glove on them. We were completely outplayed and outclassed, albeit against a Premier League side.

Sunderland v Newcastle United - Emirates FA Cup Third Round
Michael Beale was appointed as new head coach on the 18th December 2023
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

What particularly concerns me is the level of performance seems to be getting worse, not better, under the new head coach. My gut feeling is the team are not playing for him. Friday's performance against Hull City lacked intensity and quality and was extremely poor – however I feel a few tweaks to the side may change our fortunes.

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah
Photo by Adam Fradgley/West Bromwich Albion FC via Getty Images

One thing that has alarmed me is how easily teams are playing through our midfield. Both Mowbray and Beale have been consistent in selecting Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah to play in front of the back four, and both are extremely talented players. But they aren’t natural defensive midfield players. They are ball carriers and have a range of passing that would be more suited to playing further up the pitch.

Since Corry Evans was injured against Middlesbrough in January 2023, we have lost experience in the midfield. He is the club captain and showed real composure and leadership in that position.

Huddersfield Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Corry Evans has been a big miss in midfield
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

To solve our problems with teams playing through our midfield, I would push Luke O’Nien into the defensive midfield role and allow Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah the freedom to go further up the pitch and dictate the tempo of the match.

Luke O’Nien would offer quality on the ball, tenacity and fight in the middle of the pitch – and, more importantly, experience that we have lacked since Evans’ unfortunate long term injury.

Sunderland v Newcastle United - Emirates FA Cup Third Round
Luke O’Nien captain of Sunderland
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

I’m a believer in playing players in their natural positions. Luke O’Nien has done a good job playing centre-back, however I want to see Jenson Seelt get an opportunity to play alongside Dan Ballard. He is a player of good potential, he is strong, and he is good on the ball, so he can fill the role nicely at the back.

With the injuries to Alese and Cirkin I would keep Hume at left back and I would give an opportunity to Timothee Pembele – another summer signing who has had limited playing time due to injuries.

He is a player I feel can offer a lot at right back. He is quick and can give us some much-needed width on the right flank. With him coming back to fitness, I think he will become a vital player as the season progresses.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship
Timothee Pembele coming back to fitness
Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In some of his games so far, Beale has deployed Jobe as a striker, despite naming two or three genuine strikers on the bench. Nazariy Rusyn scored his first Sunderland goal against Preston on New Year's Day, played against Newcastle where he fed off scraps and was then bizarrely dropped the next game. How would he have felt?

We need to give a run of games to one of them. Whether it's Rusyn, Semedo, Mayenda or Burstow, we must give them an opportunity, as without a natural striker, we are struggling to score goals. Or if a new striker is signed in the January transfer window, they have to be given a chance to play.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship
Nazariy Rusyn scoring his first goal for Sunderland against Preston
Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Lastly, we must find a way to score goals without relying heavily on Jack Clarke. Teams are now doubling up on Clarke, and we have no other solutions. Our only plan seems to be giving it to Jack Clarke and hoping he can produce his magic.

Our right side of midfield has been a problem area, especially with Patrick Roberts struggling for goals and assists. Abdoullah Ba came in earlier in the season and played well in that position, but he has also found form hard to come by.

Sunderland v Coventry City - Sky Bet Championship
Patrick Roberts has struggled for goals and assists this season.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

We must find a way to get Patrick Roberts firing again when he is fit. He is a player who can produce moments of magic out of nothing and is a huge threat when running at defenders. With him back from injury soon, this just may occupy the minds of opposition defences and give us another option.

So, going back to basics is key. We should play players in their natural positions as much as possible and give one of our strikers a good run up top. Hopefully, we may start seeing an improvement in both performances and results.

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