With the upcoming Wear-Tyne Derby at the weekend, many fans on both sides of the fence will be apprehensive about the fixture and how their teams are looking to lineup.
So, how should Sunderland look to approach the game with Newcastle playing the Goliath role in this 3rd round FA Cup tie?
Adopting a more timid approach?
Following Sunderland’s impressive display against Leeds United at the Stadium of Light over the festive period, Mike Dodds showed that Sunderland are able to play a more defensively disciplined but organised game when required to do so.
By sitting deeper and absorbing pressure, Sunderland were able to hit on the break and use the space created from such a high Leeds line to counter-attack with pace and direct running.
Against a Newcastle team who themselves, now love to attack in transition may be the most logical setup, one not too dissimilar from the previous FA Cup meeting with another Premier League side in Fulham last season away at Craven Cottage.
By taking a more counter-attacking approach the question is then posed as to whether Sunderland should switch shape and switch to a 5-2-3 and bring in an extra central defender in the form of Jenson Seelt to compact the middle of the pitch.
By switching to a low block, Newcastle would be forced to overload wide areas to gain a numerical advantage, with injuries to Anthony Gordon and Harvey Barnes still looming over Newcastle, quality from wide may be a weakness for the Tynesiders that Mick Beale will look to exploit.
Alternatively, Sunderland could also adopt this approach in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation to mirror Newcastle, however this would require both wingers and Sunderland’s No.10 to drop in and help defensively when out of possession, leaving Sunderland’s lone striker rather isolated at the top end of the pitch.
Sunderland could still sit in a low block and look to absorb a myriad of attacks however without the extra defender present to smother the Newcastle midfielders, the quality of Premier League players may be able to force their way through as Fulham did in the replay at the Stadium of Light.
Playing Our Natural Game
On the other hand, Sunderland fans should have every right to expect their team to come out all guns blazing in a local derby, especially with a bunch of young players who play with total confidence and look to express themselves.
In all but two home games this season (Leeds & Preston) Sunderland have controlled the lion's share of possession and out-generated their opposition in the xG category in every game — therefore it’s only logical for fans to expect Sunderland to attempt to do the same here.
Many of the goals Sunderland have conceded this season however have come at the expense of individual mistakes rather than moments of sheer brilliance.
In the Championship, these mistakes can often be rectified due to the standard of players on the field however against higher calibre personnel these mistakes will be duly punished.
I think back to the previously mentioned Fulham replay last season, Sunderland started the first half well but after Tom Cairney began to smell blood following a few loose passes, Fulham made their Premier League quality show and Sunderland were down 0-2 on the hour mark despite controlling the possession and mustering up more shots than Fulham in the game.
As with any Derby, form goes out the window — although, this time it’s Sunderland who go into the weekend with a good run of form compared to their North-East neighbours, who’ve lost 8/9 games in the festive period.
Despite this, Newcastle do have a more battle-hardened side and have experienced the raucous atmosphere of the Champions League this season.
Though, both teams have local representatives on the field which I’m sure will help to galvanise the players ahead of a cagey affair.
‘No Fear Football’
In the words of the newly unemployed Wayne Rooney, Sunderland’s young team will certainly play without fear or expectation attached, in some ways, this can only be a good thing as players such as Clarke and Jobe can go out and express their natural talent.
It does however pose the question of character, and how players will respond to being on the big stage in what for most will be the biggest game of their youthful careers as professionals so far.
I’m incredibly nervous ahead of the game, however there’s nothing to lose, and if one thing is for certain, maybe... just maybe, the David & Goliath matchup will continue to play out the way it historically has in years previous.
We know this young team will give everything they have for the badge, and you never know, some of them might well and truly catch the Sunderland bug and stick around just that little bit longer.