With Sunderland’s winless run ever expanding, big changes are needed in order for the Black Cats to secure Premier League football for a fourth season running.
The system that Steve Bruce is currently deploying is proving woefully inadequate to get the best out of his players. The Black Cats have acquired some very talented individuals over three summers of big spending but many of them are finding their key assets redundant in a rigid 4-4-2 system that is not producing results. Take for example their last game against a Fulham side who made no apologies for playing out what manager Roy Hodgson described as a: “very good zero – zero.” The Cottagers had recently returned from Donetsk and during the early stages of the game looked sluggish. With heavy legs potentially a major problem for them the match offered a good opportunity for Sunderland to record their first win since November. They did not create nearly enough chances to trouble the London side, but what was more unforgivable was the way they constantly gifted possession to Fulham and seemed at times to forget to press. The Cottagers expended less energy than they would chasing the ball and before long grew in confidence as energy levels rose. What should have been their key weakness was not exploited.
Sunderland’s 4-4-2 deploys Lee Cattermole and Lorik Cana as holding midfielders flanked by Kieran Richardson and Fraizer Campbell. Cana and Cattermole are excellent ball winners but offer nothing going forward. When the Black Cats are in possession they are little more than redundant defenders sitting in the middle of the park. Campbell is playing out of position on the right wing and does not look confident in possession. This essentially leaves the Wearsiders two options in attack. One is through Richardson in left midfield, but his form is patchy and last weekend was left isolated without support from his makeshift full back Anton Ferdinand. The only further option is to hit it long towards Kenwyne Jones and Darren Bent. This was done relentlessly and unfortunately for Sunderland last Sunday, Brede Hangeland gave a master class of how to defend in the air. Fulham – who used a 4-5-1 formation – always looked comfortable in possession of the ball as they always had an extra man in the centre of the field. Sunderland looked tired and their pressing game that had served them so well at the beginning of the season deserted them.
Bruce must change his formation to a 4-5-1 in order to reverse the clubs fortunes. This would certainly be a tough decision as – for a start – Bent or Jones would have to be dropped, or played out of position. Bruce has tentatively begun games with 4-5-1 a couple of times this season, notably away at Manchester City and Everton – leaving out Jones. However the big striker was introduced in the first half of both games when Sunderland found themselves trailing. It would be a big decision, but Jones should be given the lone striker role. His physical approach and hold up play is suited to this role and he has been deployed there to good effect by Roy Keane during the season before last. This would mean top scorer Bent would have to start on the left or be dropped. This would undoubtedly be a contentious decision, but the former Tottenham man’s goals have dried up of late and playing on the left wing in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 he would still have opportunities to get forward.
On the right Fraizer Campbell would be better suited to this system as he would be able to play as more of a winger, getting forward more and utilizing his pace to good effect. Cana and Cattermole would still be able to play their holding role but this system would allow for a more attacking central midfielder to play in the hole. This is where Kieran Richardson seems most effective, or, it could also offer a way back for out of favour Steed Malbranque. The Belgian midfielder is often reluctant to track back, but in this attacking role he would not have to and it would get the best out of his creative talents. For a more attacking line up, Bruce could even play Richardson and Malbranque together in the midfield with Cana or Cattermole in the holding role. His side would no longer be swamped in the centre of the park and would have an attacking threat through the middle.
Tough decisions need to be made and Bruce must remember to select his best team rather than his best players in order for Sunderland to finish the season strongly.
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