PERHAPS it was fitting that Gus Poyet’s experimentation with a two-man strike force came at Anfield.
Despite a section of supporters at seemingly every football club crying out for 4-4-2 whenever things begin to go wrong, it has become an antiquated formation.
It’s heading in the direction of wing-halves and sweepers.
Only Steve Bruce has really managed to gain any success with an authentic 4-4-2 this season, although on the back of four league defeats out of five, there has to be a fear that Hull are beginning to be caught out by it.
Modern managers – Poyet included – much prefer the safety blanket of an extra midfielder, either with one player in the hole or two widemen pushed forward in support of the centre-forward.
But LIverpool boss Brendan Rodgers has shown that it is still possible to use a strike double act, home or away, regardless of the opposition.
It helps that Rodgers has the two most potent frontmen in the league, both of whom are prepared to drift wide and get down the outside of defenders, rather than playing on each others toes. Both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are happy to meander around the pitch under their own steam.
Yet even though Liverpool endured a fraught and nervy conclusion to last midweek’s 2-1 win over Sunderland, Poyet was forced to change his entire formation, simply in a bid to contain Suarez and Sturridge.
Will Poyet persist with that system tonight though?
Poyet has been wary of using a strike duo.
The question marks over the legs in Sunderland’s midfield, plus the eagerness to get Adam Johnson involved higher up the pitch, has led the head coach to use 4-4-2 sparingly.
While it worked in the Wear-Tyne derby back in October, that fixture hardly bears comparison with the bread and butter fixtures in the Premier League.
But the 5-3-2 still provides that extra safety valve. It’s a system which Rodgers successfuly used to incorporate Suarez and Sturridge earlier in the season.
The concern comes over whether Sunderland should be playing an extra defender at the Stadium of Light, when they have only recorded three wins at home all season and can ill-afford to come away with anything less than three points tonight.
But it’s not necessarily a negative option.
In the final 25 minutes at Anfield, both wing-backs were able to push high up the pitch, while the most attack-minded of the midfield trio was given huge licence to bomb forwards with Lee Cattermole and Liam Bridcutt holding the fort.
There is some support for the frontline too.
That has been the big problem for the lone striker in the 4-1-4-1 at the Stadium of Light. The system has served Sunderland well in terms of defensive solidity and in hitting teams on the counter-attack away from home.
Yet at home, Sunderland have been stodgy and predictable. There have been precious few occasions when any of the midfield have got beyond the striker, and opposition defences have been safe in the knowledge that if they sit deep and dominate in the air, they’ll comfortably survive.
With a change in system, there are more avenues of attack – two strikers, an attacking midfielder in the hole, plus two wing-backs bursting up and down the flanks.
Every indication is that Poyet will persist with the fresh strategy.
The bigger dilemma for the Uruguayan may be the personnel contained within it.
Fabio Borini will surely return to the starting XI, probably at the expense of Jozy Altidore, while Ki Sung-Yueng and Adam Johnson will be foremost in Poyet’s thoughts after making such a positive impression from the bench against Liverpool.
Ki will provide a like-for-like replacement for Emanuele Giaccherini, but Johnson is tougher to squeeze into the system, unless Poyet really gambles and uses the England international as a wing-back. Johnson might need to be content with a role of super-sub.
Does Poyet risk another outing for Santiago Vergini too, after his nerve-riddled display on Merseyside? Andy Carroll or, more pertinently, Kevin Nolan cannot be allowed the licence to win the headers and second-balls.
After watching Carlos Cuellar impress for the Under-21s last week, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Poyet turned to the veteran Spanish centre-half.
The Hammers’ victory over Hull last Wednesday has given Sam Allardyce’s side some breathing space with the drop zone.
They may not be quite so defensive as the succession of bottom-half sides who have come to the Stadium of Light this season and shut up shop.
There is far more riding on this one for Sunderland.
Cardiff’s dramatic last-gasp leveller at West Brom on Saturday at least ensured that the Baggies were not able to create an insurmountable gap with Sunderland.
But ahead of daunting successive games against Spurs, Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea, Sunderland can ill-afford to spurn the opportunity to keep on the coat-tails of those above them.
Realistically, anything less than three points tonight, could ultimately prove to be curtains in the survival battle.
Verdict: Home win