It has been something of a surprise that when it comes to selection, the main debate in the early days of Simon Grayson’s tenure has been about a lack of changes, a lack of variety.
Grayson sees pragmatism and an ability to surprise the opposition with his set-ups as a calling card of his management style.
‘You know me’, is his most common response in press conferences, always a sign that he has been asked either about a transfer target by name, or for some insight into his plans for the coming game.
‘I don’t give much away’, is what invariably follows. In recent games, he hasn’t had too.
Partly because of a lack of options, and partly because of his determination to lay down a marker by persisting with players who are performing and crucially, showing good work-rate in matches, his line-up has been easy to predict.
A defeat at Leeds, however, coupled with obvious fatigue from a demanding schedule, saw a very new 5-3-2 set up at Brunton Park.
It is a system he enjoyed using at Preston, but not one seen during a pre-season programme here when he regularly switched from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-2-3-1.
So is it worth persevering with against Barnsley? We take a look at some key factors.
The best role for McGeady?
Before the Barnsley game Simon Grayson outlined how if Wahbi Khazri stays at the club, he planned to use him as a number ten, rather than off the left flank as he has mostly been used at Sunderland.
The new system gave him a chance to impress in that role but he didn’t take it, a frustrated figure throughout.
Should Sunderland go that way again it will be Aiden McGeady playing off the two strikers. As the main attacking outlet in the team, getting him in a position he can thrive in is crucial.
Grayson favours him out wide, where he believes his direct dribbling and excellent crossing can hurt opponents, Moving him infield reduces that threat, though in his cameo at Brunton Park he also showed that in a more central position he can have a more consistent influence on the game, as well as speeding up Sunderland’s attacks and therefore putting the opposition defence under greater pressure.
Defence against the counter?
Sunderland’s defence did not look comfortable in the new shape but that is perhaps understandable given Papy Djilobodji’s struggles and Adam Matthew’s unfamiliar role on the other side of the three.
Add the in-form pair Lamine Kone and Tyias Browning to the side and Sunderland will have the aerial threat, pace and power to look far more resilient.
Playing wing-backs can allow the opposition to get to the byline and cross the ball regularly but Grayson will not be too worried by that, confident that he has the defenders to cope with that threat comfortably.
The extra defender also gives Sunderland added protection against the counter-attack, seen in the way John O’Shea was able to snuff out a number of dangerous counters against Carlisle.
Barnsley may have lost a number of key players but they claimed a number of big scalps last season, largely by catching teams out on the break, and Grayson may feel this shape gives him a greater element of control.
A diminished attacking threat?
As well as defensive shortcomings, Sunderland also found themselves going long too often against Carlisle, understandably getting little joy with two relatively small players in Lynden Gooch and Joel Asoro.
Grayson decided very early in his tenure that his centre-backs were not players particularly comfortable in possession, and so they are generally direct in their distribution.
The return of James Vaughan would help there but at this moment in time, Grayson perhaps needs the threat and delivery of Honeyman and McGeady in more orthodox wing roles to avoid his side being one-dimensional in attack.
That is particularly the case given the lack of genuine wing-backs in the squad.
Having admitted he expected his players to adapt quicker to the change, it seems likely Grayson will revert to a back four at Oakwell. With more training ground work, however, the back five will likely return at some stage.