Chris Young column: Sunderland’s midfield overhaul shows Dick Advocaat’s desire for change

Sebastian Larsson in action for Sunderland against Norwich. Picture by FRANK REID
Sebastian Larsson in action for Sunderland against Norwich. Picture by FRANK REID
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With 10 minutes to go in the Wear-Tyne derby, Sunderland’s desperation to preserve their 1-0 advantage saw Seb Larsson enter the referee’s notebook.

A 10th yellow card of the campaign would cost Larsson. The subsequent two-match suspension prevented the Swedish international claiming an ever-present record in Sunderland’s Premier League programme.

The central trio who began the season at Leicester have been axed by Dick Advocaat in little over a month

Given the improvement in Larsson’s game and his acclimatisation to life in central midfield – after a year or so when supporters had been distinctly unconvinced – few begrudged the 30-year-old’s existence as a fixture in the middle of the park.

It was similar with Lee Cattermole. Setting aside a month-and-a-half on the treatment table at the turn of the year and a couple of bans from accumulative yellow cards, the Teessider was an automatic pick alongside Larsson.

They were two of few deemed consistent enough to lead the race in the Player of the Season accolades, which Larsson ultimately lifted.

But just five games into this Premier League campaign, and both Cattermole and Larsson find themselves usurped from the side and occupying a place on the bench.

In Cattermole’s case, it was inevitable after he has been alarmingly off-the-pace and conceded a pair of needless penalties.

But throw in £10million Jack Rodwell, who was similarly dropped from the starting XI against Spurs, and the central trio who began the season at Leicester have been axed by Dick Advocaat in little over a month.

That’s quite some statement from Advocaat, even if Cattermole, Rodwell and Larsson inevitably find themselves back in the picture at various stages of the campaign.

Performances may have somewhat forced the head coach into these initial selection decisions, yet he is clearly backing up his blueprint for a new era at the Stadium of Light by ripping up the midfield and start again.

While Sunderland struggled to score goals last season and have struggled to keep out goals this time around, it is the middle of the park which Advocaat sees as THE pivotal area for his side moving forwards.

Advocaat is desperate for Sunderland to develop the knack of controlling games in midfield.

It’s why Yann M’Vila was pencilled in to play a key role in the side, even before he was fast-tracked into the starting XI after that harrowing opening day collapse at Leicester.

M’Vila’s ability to dictate proceedings, after instantly acclimatising to English football, is going to be a huge factor in Sunderland’s fate this season. The French international unquestionably has the ability.

But the positions, as well as the personnel, have changed in that trio.

Gus Poyet saw the holding midfield slot as the pivotal area of his philosophy, yet Advocaat tried to move Lee Cattermole further forwards in that role at the end of last season and has now abandoned the position altogether.

The Dutchman has two reservations over that ‘sitting’ position.

It can lead to the two middle men operating further forwards being outnumbered, if the opposition play a flat midfield trio.

And there is no leeway for anyone to remain consistently in the hole behind the striker and bridge the gap in the transition from defence to attack. At times over the last couple of years (since Stephane Sessegnon left the club) there has been a chasm in behind that lone frontman.

It’s no coincidence that Sunderland have instantly looked far more threatening after the introduction of Ola Toivonen.

If we’re going to play the numbers game, Sunderland have gone from a 4-1-4-1 under Poyet to a 4-2-3-1 under Advocaat. It’s a subtle change, yet one which has large repercussions to the Black Cats’ approach.

There is a far greater emphasis on attacking and, particularly, playing at a higher tempo. Those turgid draws from last season when Sunderland mastered the art of going sideways and backwards should begin to become a thing of the past.

Advocaat is an experienced pragmatist though and is unlikely to set anything in stone. It would be no surprise if Sunderland’s midfield had a more defensive aspect in next week’s games against the two Manchester clubs, particularly the league clash at Old Trafford.

But the 67-year-old’s desire to bring change to Wearside is not just a sound-bite geared towards sweetening those doubting whether the club will ever emerge from annual relegation scraps, until the Championship finally becomes a reality.

The Sunderland boss wants to try something new and that includes having second thoughts over whether to involve the mainstays.