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Style of play: Subtle signs that Michael Beale is making changes at Sunderland

“All-in-all, there’s much to be positive about as we head to Huddersfield on Wednesday. It will be interesting to see if our playing style continues to evolve,” writes Joseph Tulip.

Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Michael Beale hasn’t been at Sunderland two months yet, signing up ahead of a busy festive schedule back on December 18.

His opening 10 games have been a mixed bag in terms of results, while Beale has had his work cut out to convince a divided fanbase following his appointment.

Of those fixtures, four wins and two draws is not a bad return. I always think that unless you get the immediate new manager (head coach) bounce, a period of transition is always likely. Even Sam Allardyce took a while to get things going before he successfully turned around our Premier League survival in 2015/16.

With seven points from the last nine available, there are signs that momentum is quietly starting to build at Sunderland.

Say what you will about the performance at Middlesbrough, but it was a good away point that set us up for Saturday’s win over Plymouth, which in the end was comfortable thanks to an assured second half display from the Lads.

It’s well-documented that Beale has started to get our strikers off the mark, but there are some noticeable changes to how we are approaching games.

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Martin Swinney/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

For a team previously noted for its dedication to total football, it was often the case that we’d try too hard to score the perfect goal under Beale’s predecessor, Tony Mowbray.

Within the past couple of games, we’ve started to cross the ball more. They might not all be perfect, but Abdoullah Ba and Patrick Roberts, players sometimes accused of overplaying, have been getting the ball into the box quicker, and more often, from wide areas.

Trai Hume has been overlapping and also firing in crosses, while Jack Clarke, on the opposite flank, has been getting past the full-back on the outside more often, to cross from the byline. There are also early signs that from left back, Leo Hjelde will put his left foot to good use in the attacking third.

There were several times against Plymouth when Nazariy Rusyn’s clever runs almost paid off, so it’s clear that Beale is trying to make our build-up play more suitable to our centre forwards.

We also seem to be a bit more no-nonsense at the back. Yes, Plymouth’s goal saw our high line exposed, but generally speaking, we’re taking less risks with Dan Ballard and Luke O’Nien clearing their lines when necessary, rather than gambling with an awkward back pass or playing out from the back when under intense pressure.

Sunderland v Newcastle United - Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

It’s early days for Beale and he certainly hasn’t made wholesale changes. The second half saw some scintillating phases of play, where our passing was as crisp and appealing as anything we’ve seen this season.

Of course there’s no getting carried away. It was only one game, against one of the Championship’s lower placed teams and one we were expected to win. We also have to work out who our best number ten is following the departure of Alex Pritchard.

But with Ba and Adil Aouchiche to choose from, as well as new signings Callum Styles and Romain Mundle, we are not short of options. The latter impressed with his pace and energy levels after coming off the bench on Saturday, while Chris Rigg also demonstrated what he can bring to midfield when called upon.

We’ve struggled for consistency for months, but a few weeks ago our skipper O’Nien said in a post-match interview that we “weren’t far off being a very good team”, and I don’t think he’s a bad judge of all things Sunderland.

At the back, with our newer tougher approach and the addition of the assured-looking Hjelde, we’re looking more solid. Midfield remains a work in progress, and Jobe looked to benefit from bench duty on Saturday – coming on re-energised to score a fine goal, while Dan Neil delivered an inspired performance, breaking up play and driving us forward.

I like Rusyn up front but our other strikers give us different options.

All-in-all, there’s much to be positive about as we head to Huddersfield on Wednesday. It will be interesting to see if our playing style continues to evolve.


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