How can Sunderland pull of a shock win at West Brom?

A trip to The Hawthorns is undoubtedly a daunting one for Sunderland in their current plight.

Wednesday, 18th January 2017, 7:56 pm
Updated Wednesday, 18th January 2017, 8:06 pm
Sunderland midfielders Seb Larsson and George Honeyman (right) combine to challenge Joey Barton in Tuesday night's FA Cup defeat at Burnley. Picture by Frank Reid

Well-organised, high on confidence and climbing the table, Tony Pulis’s side will be looking to add to the Black Cats woes.

So, having switched to a back five on Tuesday night, what should David Moyes do to try and pull off a shock win on Saturday? Here are some of the key questions...

Will he go with a back five again? What other options does he have?

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Jack Rodwell’s injury has thrown something of a spanner in the works.

Moyes had favoured a 4-4-2 in recent weeks, after an impressive draw with Liverpool. When Didier Ndong left for the Africa Cup of Nations, Sunderland were left without the energy needed to play that system and without Rodwell, it is difficult to see how the Black Cats could pull it off, especially when coming up against such an experienced, box-to-box campaigner such as Darren Fletcher.

Sunderland will need Seb Larsson in the middle of the field, to add some poise and calm alongside what is likely to be an inexperienced pair. If Larsson plays out wide, it would probably leave George Honeyman and Jason Denayer in the middle, an underpowered pairing for this division.

The alternative would be to play a 4-2-3-1, with Denayer and Larsson at the base and Honeyman behind Defoe.

Were there any positives to the new shape at Turf Moor?

It seems difficult to accept in retrospect, but, for periods in the first half, Sunderland, if nowhere near being the better side, did look relatively comfortable.

The extra man in defence made them far less vulnerable to the long balls through the middle that saw them capitulate on New Year’s Eve. Of course, when Andre Gray came off the bench, Sunderland threatened to be overwhelmed again and his goal late on was very similar to his first in the league meeting.

Still, for the most part, the Black Cats looked a bit more resilient and the extra centre-back gave them some much-needed extra protection in the absence of Lamine Kone.

Denayer’s speed helps protect Papy Djilobodji, with the left flank he shared with Patrick van Aanholt a weak spot defensively on Tuesday night. The experience and consistency of Billy Jones was also a big boost and his versatility helps Moyes shoehorn his plethora of right-backs into the team with a slightly better balance.

That nous of Jones will be crucial against Salomon Rondon, one of the best target men in the league. Sunderland have looked vulnerable to the high ball all season and there are few better exponents than West Brom. That extra body could be crucial.

What areas have to improve to make it work?

Quite simply, Sunderland have to make a vast, vast improvement when it comes to their use of the ball.

The benefit of an extra centre-back for a struggling side should be the chance to pause on the ball, to take a moment and keep it simple. Too often at Burnley they simply gifted it straight back to the opposition, launching long balls at a frontline with little presence.

They looked threatening only when the ball was played out from the back, Seb Larsson dropping to the base of the midfield to try and build up attacking moves.

That patience will be crucial to getting the wing-backs, particularly Patrick van Aanhholt, in the final third where they can best exploit Jermain Defoe’s movement in the box and ability to escape the opposition centre-backs.

Sunderland will have no joy with any system if they continue to play so vertically, particularly against such a physical and aerially proficient back line like West Brom’s. Their only chance is to get them running towards their own goal.