Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Bright signs, but 4-4-2’s no magic cure

Steven Fletcher.
Steven Fletcher.
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A TWO-GOAL fightback in a game pinpointed for victory means a distinct lack of sweeping conclusions.

But one verdict which can be drawn from Saturday’s absorbing, if not particularly high quality draw with Fulham, is that a formation change is not the magical solution to all Sunderland’s ills.

Whenever goals are scarce, or a new frontman added to the attacking arsenal (both of which applied to Sunderland), it prompts an outcry from the terraces for the return to that good old, tried and tested, fuzzily familiar 4-4-2.

Steve Bruce suffered from it, Martin O’Neill has. Even Mike Bassett did.

But in two outings with Steven Fletcher partnering Danny Graham in an orthodox 4-4-2, Sunderland have taken just a point, and, more alarmingly, conceded a four-goal total that could easily have been more severe.

Don’t misunderstand, O’Neill needed to alter the make-up of Sunderland’s attack and the Black Cats have undoubtedly looked far more of a threat going forward with two strikers on the field.

But there is a reason O’Neill has favoured 4-4-1-1 for the bulk of his Stadium of Light tenure; not least the lack of a dominant central midfielder while Lee Cattermole is unavailable.

Neither Seb Larsson nor Alfred N’Diaye can lay claim to being one.

Larsson has been converted from the right-hand side and although the Swede can never be accused of lacking work-rate, desire or set-piece threat, he doesn’t possess the knack of controlling a game.

N’Diaye, meanwhile, is arguably the only midfielder at the club this season who has shown the inclination to bomb regularly into the area and down the channels, and clearly has the raw tools of potential.

Yet the January signing’s execution is far from polished and his positioning is naïve; not least for Fulham’s second goal when the 6ft 2in 22-year-old went for a short corner while the 5ft 10in Craig Gardner and the 5ft 7in Stephane Sessegnon waited in the penalty area.

With a central midfield trio – even if that involves Stephane Sessegnon, in the number 10 role, dropping deeper – the greater security of an extra body masks the flaws of those occupying the positions in the middle of the park.

But in a two, there is no hiding.

The loose passes stood out during the first half against Fulham and so did the lack of protection for the back four.

It doesn’t help that Sunderland are being forced to play two midfielders at full-back, with neither Sessegnon or Adam Johnson instinctively tracking back to offer a helping hand down the flank.

But Fulham were able to by-pass Sunderland’s midfield during that nervy opening 45 minutes from the hosts.

When Martin Jol’s side did get into advanced positions, a side who had managed just three goals in their previous six away games panicked the Black Cats defence.

Although Jack Colback enjoyed a solid outing, Craig Gardner looked distinctly uneasy against the pace of wideman Ashkan Dejagah.

Mark Halsey may have been somehow convinced by Dejagah’s theatrical collapse for the opener, but the Iranian exposed the Sunderland right-back 10 minutes later when he got the wrong side from Mark Schwarzer’s punt forward.

Neither Titus Bramble nor John O’Shea were much more assured and for all it was a stunning save from Simon Mignolet seconds before Sessegnon’s leveller, Dimitar Berbatov really should have profited from getting in behind the Sunderland back-line so comfortably.

It was only when the Black Cats were able to monopolise possession, during the breathless finale, that Sunderland’s back-line began to look more secure.

So should O’Neill revert back to the 4-4-1-1 for the final 10 games, the first two of which are so, so crucial to whether the Wearsiders are sucked into the dogfight?

Not really.

Sunderland may have lacked control or precision on Saturday, but their ability to maintain work-rate, desire and tempo has seen them put sides under pressure during two outings with 4-4-2.

O’Neill’s side are creating chances with the new system, and had Graham opened his Sunderland account two minutes into the second half – as he should have done – victory would have gone from possible to probable.

Crucially, too, the system has brought the best out of Sessegnon at a pivotal juncture of the season.

The Benin international’s goals tend to come in bursts and his finish for the leveller on Saturday displayed the confident precision which too often evades him when blessed with a sight of the target.

It wasn’t just the goal.

Sessegnon was Sunderland’s shining light throughout as he burst forward with pace and purpose.

But when he moved into the “number 10” slot for the final 15 minutes, Sunderland never managed to create that clear-cut chance for what would have been a priceless winner.

Despite a minority booing James McClean when he replaced Graham, the Republic of Ireland winger still managed to centre several delicious crosses from the left.

But they were deliveries which required the presence of two centre-forwards to profit from.

With Connor Wickham out on loan, there were no striking alternative on a Sunderland bench which didn’t even meet its full quota.

Surely once Wickham’s month-long spell at Sheffield Wednesday comes to an end, after this Saturday’s Championship encounter at Leicester, the £8million man will be back on Wearside.

By then, Sunderland could have taken a major step towards safety by winning against a QPR side, who shrugged off talk of Dubai booze-ups to create a glimmer of hope in the survival battle at Southampton on Saturday.

If the Black Cats can secure a crunch victory at Loftus Road for the second successive season, a point against Fulham, after going two-goals down, will look an invaluable one.