Formation Conundrum

After using a three at the back system during pre-season, we saw Jack Ross deploy it again last Saturday when Sunderland played out a 1-1 draw with Oxford. This formation seems to be Ross’ preference going forward, but the jury is still out as to whether this is the most effective way for the team to play.

Last season it seemed that Jack Ross never really decided on a favoured formation. While we ended the season more regularly playing with a 4-2-3-1, the earlier parts of the season saw the manager using a lob sided three at the back set up and throughout the campaign we also tried implementing a 4-4-2. Ross now appears determined to be more consistent and use a 3-4-2-1 formation, a system he also used while as St. Mirren. Worryingly, the change to this formation doesn’t seem to have yielded any improvement in our style of football from the end of last season, if last Saturday is anything to go by.

The three at the back system being used by Ross has its strengths on paper. The way he sets up the team has the two central midfielders working hard in the middle of the park to turn over possession quickly and start attacking moves. There is then a reliance on the wing backs to provide the width and get balls into the attacking players. The formation seems to also be fluid in terms of the three forward players either being two attacking midfielders playing off a single striker, or one attacking midfielder playing behind two strikers. This interchangeability allows the formation to be either a 3-4-2-1 or a 3-4-1-2, perhaps even switching in-game.

Now this all sounds good when written down, but I feel that the problem may be that of a manager imposing his favoured system onto a group of players, rather than fitting a formation around his players’ strengths. Of course, the transfer window is still open, and Jack Ross has signed a number of new recruits this summer, but there still seems an element of uncomfortableness in some of our players when playing this system.

Against Oxford we saw Denver Hume and Lynden Gooch start as the two wing backs. Gooch was one of the more decent players in that game but it is questionable if right wing back is his natural and best position. Hume did not have the best game but as a 20-year-old academy product who hasn’t played many first team games at all and who has previously predominantly played in a back four I felt some sympathy as he was asked to play such an important role in this system. With Hume being our only left back currently in the squad and there being no real natural right wing back, I question whether we should be playing a system that relies so much on its wing back positions.

Despite this, the current transfer window seems to have in some way been geared towards preparing for this formation. The signings of Conor McLaughlin and Jordan Willis and the immediate use of them in the back three shows an attempt at implementing a more mobile defence. Both can also play at full back and so allows the defensive shape to be fluid and move across to plug the gaps when our wing backs are attacking. This shows that we are indeed trying to get the right players to play this formation, at least from a defensive perspective. I still felt that Flanagan looked uncomfortable however, maybe even more so in a three-man defence and this again seems to be an issue of shoehorning a player into a system.

I’m sure most Sunderland fans would agree though that the main issue currently is our inability to create enough chances in a game. Our strikers have come under some criticism but there seems to be a real underlying problem of how many chances we actually create for the front men. This 3-4-2-1 formation is perhaps an attempt to provide more creative support for the striker without the need for them to drift out too far wide as the width can be provided by the wing backs. However, the current evidence hasn’t shown any real improvement in the way of consistently creating chances. Obviously, the season is only one match in and we are all hoping this new system can come good and result in a more free-flowing attacking football with greater chance creation.

However, there is an argument that, despite similar issues last season, we have players more suited to a simpler four at the back formation. One positive I took from the Oxford game was how effective Dobson and McGeough were in central midfield. I felt that they commanded the middle of the park both in terms of turning over possession and starting attacks with forward passes. They both however seem slightly restricted in how much they were able to join the attack. This left a gap in the middle of the pitch between the midfield and attack, once again meaning most attacking moves had to come down the flanks from the wing backs.

As I alluded to earlier this was ineffective due to the quality of the crosses and also the height of our attacking players. Central midfield is a position that Sunderland are overstocked in, and not just with deadwood but with a number of quality players offensively and defensively. Perhaps a better way to create chances would be to go more directly through the centre of the park rather than out wide.

Of course, tactics and formations are complex and worked on over weeks and months, but there is certainly a worry we didn’t look entirely cohesive in a 3-4-2-1 at the weekend. Maybe with the likes of O’Nien, Power, Robson, Dobson, Leadbitter and McGeough, we now have a variety of central midfield options more capable of attacking support for those further up the pitch. We are clearly struggling to create chances from out wide and by hoping that three attacking players can create something together, so maybe we could use our midfield options more effectively.

If Jack Ross chooses to persist with the 3-4-2-1, I hope that the team can get it working, but I can’t help but feel that it does not play to our strengths. Perhaps reverting to a system more akin to the 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 would allow us to utilise our central players more efficiently to give more creative support to our attacking players. Choosing a formation has always been a conundrum and there are plenty of options, but let’s just hope whichever one Sunderland use that it can get us creating more chances and scoring more goals.