This week’s Durham Times column comes from Craig Clark. The article was first published in this week’s newspaper.
Sam Allardyce has surprised us more than once since taking over as Sunderland manager, not least when he opted to line his side up in a 3-5-2 formation away to Everton. There was method in the apparent madness, with an ageing, rusty Wes Brown needing as much help as he could get at the back.
Whilst the defensive side of things completely failed, at least in part due to individual errors and Brown’s lack of match practice, going forward, Sunderland were a revelation at times. There were brilliant performances from Steven Fletcher and Jermain Defoe, who linked up superbly throughout, both finding themselves on the score sheet. It was a huge disappointment not to see them together again in the subsequent defeat to Southampton.
Given how well that partnership has gelled, it is surely Allardyce’s job to find a system that can accommodate the pair without it costing his side too much defensive solidity. With 3-5-2 likely to be consigned to the scrap heap, perhaps it’s time to consider 4-4-2 as a genuine alternative.
Allardyce and his predecessors have toyed with a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation for some time now and it’s rarely produced much in the way of positive results. The third man in midfield has helped Sunderland compete in the middle of the park, but Allardyce’s teams aren’t famed for their possession football. If there’s no desire to retain the ball, why not simply sacrifice the additional cog in a malfunctioning machine?
From a defensive perspective, when the midfield trio is completed by Ola Toivonen, it is a two in all but name, so little does he contribute defensively. Removing him for Jermain Defoe would at least increase the side’s attacking potency and give Fletcher the support he so obviously needs. Meanwhile, Lee Cattermole and Yann M’Vila have the quality, commitment and energy to anchor the midfield on their own.
It is in the wide areas that Allardyce might be left scratching his head. For starters, he might be forced to leave around £20m worth of summer signings on the bench. Jeremain Lens would almost certainly be a non-starter, given his lack of work rate as a wide forward. On the other hand, whilst Fabio Borini certainly puts in a shift, much of what is good about his game – his movement in the final third – would be lost if he was asked to play wide in an orthodox 4-4-2.
All of this could open the door for Sebastian Larsson’s to return to the side. He’s been frozen out under Allardyce so far, but his ability to deliver a dead ball and experience as a right sided midfielder would surely make him first choice in that position. On the opposite side, Adam Johnson would appear to be the obvious selection, but Patrick van Aanholt could also be tested in the role; his pace and delivery were one of the positives against Everton.
Defoe and Fletcher are the most exciting, best functioning partnership in this Sunderland squad. It would be remiss not to use them together. 4-4-2 comes with risks and has it’s failings, but if it means seeing these two together at the expense of Toivonen, Jack Rodwell or Jordi Gomez, then they’re risks worth taking.