In typical Sunderland fashion, recent games have seen us miss out on opportunities to make up ground on the automatic promotion places. With the lads quickly becoming the draw specialists of the league and increasingly predictable to defend against, it could be suggested that a new approach is sometimes needed.
It does seem strange to be writing about a lack of a Plan B when Plan A is not yet finalised. Jack Ross has not yet found his strongest starting XI following the January transfer window, with the most significant business having been saved until the very end. With the exceptions of Jon McLaughlin and Will Grigg, every position appears to be up for grabs. Despite this, Ross has always been clear about how he likes his sides to play; passing out from the back preferring an end to end, basketball style game. He is happy to cede possession and allow the opposition to have possession in dangerous areas and carve out opportunities if it means that the game expands and his side can create chances.
However, the problems of this are two-fold. Expansive football is energy sapping, especially in the context of the hectic schedule of League One. This has been evident at times this season when players have been reluctant to break with pace in situations where the opposition look vulnerable. Secondly, especially at the Stadium of Light, teams generally set up to frustrate, putting bodies behind the ball and looking to play on the counter. Often, this leads to a lot of Sunderland possession on the edge of the final third with little in the way of chances to show for it. In recent weeks, this has become less and less effective and resulted in the goals drying up somewhat.
As the promotion race hots up, it has become increasingly obvious that we need a viable Plan B, if we are to regain the momentum lost in recent weeks. The likes of Luton and Barnsley like to get the ball on the floor and play like us, but have the capability to be direct and aggressive when they need to mix it up. When both sides came to the Stadium of Light, they each started with two strikers, both over 6ft. When Sunderland went ahead in both games, their directness and physicality helped each of them get back into the game and for Luton to salvage a point.
This is not something Sunderland can match. Charlie Wyke is the only midfield or forward player over 6ft tall. Even so, Wyke seems to lack the aggression that other forwards of his size have. Sunderland have lacked physicality for a number of seasons now, well before Jack Ross’ arrival, and it is limiting the potential of the squad. It is one reason why this season we have struggled to score goals from corners and look particularly vulnerable defending set pieces. The window has passed with no real improvement in this area. If Wyke could grow into this role however, it would add an extra dynamic to Sunderland’s attack and be a potential game-changer in tight fixtures. An extra option in the air could be the outlet Sunderland need to start scoring more regularly and get back to winning ways.
In an ideal world, Sunderland would play their eye-catching style and blow the opposition away. Given the choice, every fan would rather see their team play this way. However, with promotion at stake, practicality must take priority. At this stage of the season teams must be overcome. Jack Ross potentially faces a tough choice between his principles and getting the job done.