Square Pegs, Round Holes

I get a lot of grief for saying that our current squad is good enough to get promoted. And, to be fair, recent performances have even made me doubt but, after much thought, I’m sticking with it. The problems at the club are not down to the people on the pitch but rather how they are managed. I’m not saying the players are blameless, I’m just not convinced they deserve the ‘worst team ever’ message I keep reading online.

There are various ways of playing football, some pretty, some less attractive on the eye, some effective, some, well, not so effective. Managers will generally have a way they like to play and, over a number of years, will mould a club, from youth to u23 to first team to play that way. They will ask scouts to search for players to fit that mould and will recruit accordingly. But, and it’s a big but, when a manager arrives at a club they’re unlikely to find a club structured in line with their hopes and aspirations.

They need to prove themselves with the tools at their disposal. Not by immediately going out and buying players who fit their preferred way of playing, but by looking at what’s already there and coming up with the best formation, training, tactics and needs to get the best out of what they’ve got.

Obviously, I am not in and around the team day in day out so, all I can offer are my thoughts as a fan.

Parkinson has us playing balls up field as quickly as possible, pushing balls into channels to chase down with a defensive line locked into set formulae depending on what the other team are doing. This would be ideal for teams with a fast target man and pacey wingers. It also works well when you have big, physical defenders who struggle to play the ball or those who are incapable of independent thought. It is, in my opinion, completely wrong for our squad.

Parkinson seems to have arrived at a marathon running club and said ‘right, we’re doing the 100m from now on and I’m going to need to do a lot of work in January to get 100m runners in’. Apart from the obvious negative mood that brings to the group, it’s also entirely misguided. We have players at this club who should be taking this division apart.

Goalkeepers – we have two goalkeepers who have demonstrated, especially last season, that they are more than capable of playing in a title winning team. They are clearly lacking confidence but there’s enough evidence that, if managed and coached properly they are good enough to win the league.

Strikers – In the two league one seasons they played before joining Sunderland, Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg scored 22 in 56 and 44 in 83. They have 10 in 58 in red and white. Their most successful spells have come when they play off the last man and have balls played through to their feet centrally or played into the gap between last man and keeper from deep lying positions. We currently either play the balls back to them from the goal line or ask them to chase balls played over the top.

It’s not what they do, so why play that way? Their natural game is best suited by playing with midfielders who can pass accurately from deep. Midfielders who might not be the quickest but don’t need to be if the formation is played properly. They’re not bad players, they’re badly managed.

It’s also interesting that they both have a history of playing well as a lone striker rather than as a two. Do we have a capable number ten who can play in behind them? In McGeady and Maguire we have two players who could play there, play balls through or take shots themselves from further back.

McGeady and Maguire look unfit. Some players look exhausted after fifteen minutes, many can’t perform for more than an hour, none look to be as sharp mentally or physically as should be expected. I can excuse a player for not being good enough but to not be fit enough isn’t on. Again, this, in a player, is a lack of professionalism and discipline, they need to take personal responsibility. But are the club doing enough to get the best out of players? Will the newly appointed coach responsible for fitness re-introduce diet sheets and agree meal plans and expectations? Will individual training plans for players clearly not as fit as they should be be introduced? Time will tell.

Midfielders – we need to go with five because, if we want to win it in midfield and then pass it, we don’t have enough in a four. So what are their jobs and do we have the quality? For me, Power and Dobson are definite starters in a midfield three with either Leadbitter or McGeouch. The job of these players is to win the ball and pass it. They all lack pace, that is abundantly clear but, in the formation we’re looking at, it’s not about pace, it’s about making the ball do the work, in open play and also at set plays.

Out wide, in both midfield and defence we are weak – physically and mentally. Do we want wingbacks or attacking wingers? Either way, it is the weakest part of our squad. They need to get through a lot of work and, for me, mustn’t be given too much defensive responsibility but rather move the play forward and look to the number ten or a ball into the channel (on the floor) to the striker to hold up play.

For me, the two obvious candidates are Hume and O’Nien but, with coaching, with a specific requirement, I think Gooch and possibly even Watmore could play there. Again, with thought, it’s manageable until January and even then, they’re far from the worst.

Defence – well, let’s be honest, there’s a reason I’ve left this until last. Where I believe the players above (if managed and coached properly) could take us up and keep us up (just about), I think our defenders would be out of their depth in the Championship. I still believe that, if managed properly and played in a formation that makes sense to the players, we have a defence that gets us promoted and gets a few clean sheets. Willis and Lynch, if protected by a five man midfield are solid and capable players. Speaking to fans of Coventry and QPR they talk about their positional sense and their ability to play it out from defence. These are two things we’ve seen very little of since they arrived at Sunderland. Did they suddenly get worse? No, they just need to spend constructive time on the training pitch working together. As a third, I’d add in Ozturk to deal with the height and physicality in League One.

And if ever there were examples of players who should be capable of more than they’re currently demonstrating, then the two reserve central defenders, Flanagan and McLaughlin, have both been first team regulars in teams promoted from this division. McLaughlin even made that season’s team of the year.

I’m obviously not saying we’ve no need to improve the squad. I’d like to see a winger to move the ball on the floor and a left sided defender join in January but, after that, I see our problems are on the training ground and in the dugout rather than with the personnel.

A good manager would not insist on his style of play at all costs and would stop this bizarre square pegs in round holes approach Parkinson seems to have adopted.

I’m not saying sack him, I’m not saying our team is perfect, I’m just not convinced blaming the players is the right answer.