Sunderland analysis: Big question is HOW Advocaat changes set-up, not if it needs to be done

Patrick van Aanholt in action for Sunderland during their 3-0 loss at Manchester United Picture by FRANK REID
Patrick van Aanholt in action for Sunderland during their 3-0 loss at Manchester United Picture by FRANK REID
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Four fire-fighting Sunderland managers have faced a Catch-22 over how to keep a limited, bottom half squad in the Premier League.

Do you keep it tight, pile men behind the ball and then try to nick a 1-0 win? A ploy which runs the risk of too many draws or late defeats that keep the team grounded on the fringes of the drop zone.

Or do you go for it? Try to be that adventurous, inconsistent side that wins one week, loses the next, yet could become cannon fodder.

Martin O’Neill and Gus Poyet favoured the defensive-minded ploy, but were undone by the dull, pedestrian pace of their build-up play which made it oh-so-easy for opposition sides to soak up the minimal pressure.

Eventually, players sub-consciously stopped believing they were going to score.

Paolo Di Canio was adamant that he was going to play a 4-4-2 and win games. It didn’t work...

Dick Advocaat saw the quantity of draws from last season which hamstrung Sunderland under Poyet and has proactively tried to make the Black Cats both more attractive and more forward-thinking.

The slight problem is that Sunderland cannot defend properly. Or, to put it more accurately, they can’t stop conceding dreadfully soft goals that generally stem from individual clangers.

None of the quartet in the hotseat found a happy medium. Well, in Advocaat’s case, he hasn’t come close yet after Sunderland still managed to ship another three goals at Old Trafford, despite a much-improved defensive play before the clock hit 48 minutes 20 seconds.

But does Advocaat now need to take urgent action, throw his blueprint in the paper shredder and try something new? Does he have to incorporate elements of O’Neill and Poyet’s defensive-minded approach?

Ten games is supposed to be the benchmark before the direction of a season is accurately judged.

But Sunderland have had seven in the Premier League and that’s enough to know their position in the table is no fluke.

The Black Cats are again facing a gigantic battle to remain in the top flight.

They’re leaking goals at an average of more than two per game. The pattern has to change.

For all the hints of improvement and meaningless positives, Sunderland are still going one way.

Would it be a sign of panic from Advocaat to abolish his favoured 4-3-3? Not at all.

The 68-year-old has been a pragmatist throughout his managerial career and it’s one of the reasons why he has been so successful.

Take the final nine games of last season as an example. There was merely subtle evolution, rather than revolution, to Poyet’s set-up.

Advocaat can make tweaks to Sunderland’s system without completely abandoning it again this time around – moving some of the widemen deeper into a 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1 would be an obvious place to start.

The big headache for the Dutchman is whether he has personnel to do that.

Yes, there’s an obvious change to make in defence, where Advocaat’s patience with Patrick van Aanholt is surely wearing thin.

Advocaat had been pondering whether to throw DeAndre Yedlin in at left-back prior to the trip to Old Trafford, but he had reservations over the American international’s lack of experience in that position after predominantly playing as a right-back in his brief senior career.

But van Aanholt has cost Sunderland goals time and again this season, and with his lack of positional awareness, he’s going to continue doing so.

He simply abandoned Juan Mata for United’s meaningless third goal.

It’s one of the reasons why Poyet – who had so desperately wanted to sign loanee Marcos Alonso on a permanent basis – adopted a defensive set-up, so he could offer some protection to the ex-Chelsea full-back.

But the other changes of personnel are not so straightforward, particularly as Advocaat has clearly been conscious of trying to inject some fresh blood into the annual strugglers, rather than relying on the work-rate of Seb Larsson or the ageing Wes Brown.

Jeremain Lens has probably been the most disappointing of Sunderland’s summer signings so far, given his lofty price tag and sporadic impact.

There was a first-half volley routinely saved by David De Gea at Manchester United, but not a lot more than that. He has the look of a player still coming to grips with the attributes needed for a relegation battle.

Lens is the best thing Sunderland have to a match-winner though.

Does Advocaat merely have to relinquish him of defensive responsibilities completely and hand him a free role?

Or does he have to be more dramatic and leave him out for the industry of Larsson. Neither looks a perfect solution.

Equally, Advocaat doesn’t seem convinced that either Jermain Defoe or Fabio Borini can play as a lone striker, with the latter struggling to hold the ball up against Chris Smalling and Daley Blind.

Does that mean that Steven Fletcher has to lead the line alongside one of the duo though?

Considering the Scot’s meagre goal return over recent seasons, few supporters would be convinced by that.

There are some uncomfortable dilemmas for Advocaat to ponder this week, prior to Saturday’s visit of West Ham, where Sunderland really are beginning to enter the last chance saloon for a maiden Premier League win.

The question is not do Sunderland need to try something different.

It’s how they do it.