Keep faith with Grayson? Recall Ruiter? Dump the 4-4-2? Our writers discuss the big Sunderland issues

Jordan Hugill's stunning volley beats Jason Steele. Picture by Frank Reid.
Jordan Hugill's stunning volley beats Jason Steele. Picture by Frank Reid.
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A 1-1 draw with QPR left Sunderland rooted in the Championship relegation zone, a result that once again raised more questions than answers.

Aiden McGeady’s stunning equaliser brought a potentially poisonous atmosphere back from the brink, but fan unrest continues to bubble.

Sunderland writers Phil Smith and Richard Mennear take a look at the big questions and offer their thoughts...

1) After a disastrous start to the Championship, should Sunderland keep faith with Simon Grayson?

RM: There is no hiding Sunderland’s start to life in the Championship couldn’t have gone much worse.

Just one win in 12, no home win in six attempts (part of a wider 17-game home winless streak) and 22 goals conceded.

Any manager overseeing that form would rightly be under pressure from the long-suffering fanbase.

The football has been poor, tactics and team selection constantly tinkered with, all factors heaping pressure on Grayson.

This squad should be doing far better. Dropping into League One is unthinkable.

There are, however, several mitigating factors; having to deal with the relegation hangover, huge turnaround in personnel and reshaping an entire squad on a measly budget – the total spend £1.25m – due to the club’s dire financial state. He did well to sign 10 players with that budget. Injuries and illness have also prevented him playing his first choice team.

Yes, Sunderland should keep faith with Grayson, his record at Blackpool, Leeds United and Preston North End strongly suggest he will turn it round.

However, he needs results quickly.

PS: Grayson is suffering the consequences of having to bring in players who have not played regular football for a prolonged period.

Niggles are an inevitability, and that has been one reason for the constant chopping and playing without obvious purpose.

The added tinkering on top of that has admittedly been frustrating and clearly this squad should not be in any danger of relegation.

At home their record is woeful and the manager has not come close to finding a formula that brings balance and purpose.

It will be interesting to see this situation develop as the word from the top has been that despite the obvious budget limitations, this squad ought to have enough to be competitive.

The obvious failure to do that so far will balance out against a Chief Executive who has highlighted stability on football matter as crucial ever since his arrival.

Should Sunderland still be without a home win by the time Bolton leave the Stadium of Light at the end of this month, the pressure could be intolerable.

With most of his squad now available and having had some breathing space to get on the training ground, it is clear that the team need to show greater cohension and identity and quickly.

2) The goalkeeping situation has become a problem, who should be the No.1 - Jason Steele or Robbin Ruiter?

RM: Robbin Ruiter.

Clearly, both have flaws in their game with Grayson chopping and changing. Steele currently has the gloves but his nervy displays haven’t inspired confidence.

Some of his saves against QPR were impressive but his kicking was awful. Ruiter commands his box more and he would be my pick.

PS: It was a surprise to see Ruiter taken out of the side before the Ipswich game and while there is no doubt he had a torrid league debut against Barnsley, he has generally looked a decent option at this level.

His game is far from flawless, particularly when it comes to distribution and his tendency to punch the ball clear no matter the quality of delviery, but he is experienced, a good communicator and for the most part brought some stability when in the team.

3) Lee Cattermole and Didier Ndong have both struggled, how do you solve a problem like Sunderland’s midfield?

RM: It is a real issue for Sunderland. Firstly, both have played a lot of football, but are yet to click as a partnership, Preston aside.

Increasingly, it would seem the pair cannot play together so Grayson either shoehorns in another midfielder (Jonny Williams) alongside them or drops one of them.

Grayson made a big call to drop Lamine Kone a few weeks back. Dropping Cattermole would be an even bigger call, but it must be going through Grayson’s mind as a potential option.

Paddy McNair could prove the answer in central midfield but Sunderland likely won’t see the best of him until the New Year.

PS: The answer to the question will hopefully be Paddy McNair. His height and strength means he is more than capable of playing in a midfield two, while his numerous through balls to Duncan Watmore on his U23 return showed he can offer something going forward as well.

In time, he and Ndong, whose form must surely improve, could form part of a genuinely dynamic trio behind Jonny Williams, who has to start when fit.

For now, he has the option of playing Williams in a two or dropping George Honeyman slightly deeper.

The latter certainly has the energy to play there but it would be a big gamble and we arguably haven’t seen enough consistency from him on the ball.

Could he play slightly higher with Williams tucked in behind him? That’s a possible solution.

It’s a difficult conundrum which underlines a big problem with the current squad, with too many similar players in certain positions.

It is difficult to argue that Darron Gibson or Jack Rodwell would offer an upgrade.

As poor as Cattermole was on Saturday, he has looked far better away from home and that could work to his favour on Saturday. Without doubt, he needs Williams’ poise on the ball alongside him.

4) Do Sunderland persist with James Vaughan in the side?

RM: You can’t fault his work rate or work ethic, but Vaughan has scored just a single goal.

Sunderland adopt a long ball approach when he plays, it is almost subconscious to pump the ball long to him.

Problem is there hasn’t been anyone near him to feed off his flick-ons when he does win the ball.

Taking him out of the firing line and the team will force Sunderland to adopt a different, more creative approach that will hurt opposing defences more – with fit-again Duncan Watmore and Lewis Grabban posing more of a goal threat.

PS: Most fans would recognise that Sunderland have not helped Vaughan this season. He has had hardly any crosses to attack and too often it has been so easy for defences to force him towards the half-way line where any flick-ons are of little value.

He has too often been an easy out ball, something we saw with Watmore on Saturday when the team were far too quick to try and launch the ball over the top for him to chase. It reflects the lack of confidence in the squad.

Introducing Grabban and Williams might just force the team to keep the ball on the floor. Before Grabban’s injury against Nottingham Forest, Sunderland played their best football of the season and it something worth trying to replicate.

5) Constant changes to team and formation is an issue, what is Sunderland’s best formation and side ahead of Brentford game?

RM: First and foremost Grayson must decide on a system and stick with it.

For me, the best form of defence is attack. Other more cautious approaches clearly aren’t working.

Sunderland must get Callum McManaman and Aiden McGeady in the same team, adopting a 4-4-2.

Jonny Williams must start at Brentford, with either Didier Ndong or Lee Cattermole in the holding midfield role.

Williams and the wingers would have to do their share of tracking back, but Sunderland need a win from somewhere.

Team: Ruiter, Matthews, Browning, O’Shea, Oviedo, McManaman, Ndong, Williams, McGeady, Watmore, Grabban.

PS: The experiment with five at the back has rightly been dumped and while the players certainly look far more confident in a 4-4-2, it doesn’t really offer the side much control of games.

Although the Ipswich game was a disaster, Sunderland are surely at their best with both Aiden McGeady and Callum McManaman on the flanks, in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.

In time, Paddy McNair will hopefully arrive to change the tempo of Sunderland’s midfield alongside Jonny Williams, allowing Lewis Grabban to lead the line and Duncan Watmore to rotate in the wide and central areas where he can change games.

Reducing the workload on Cattermole may also allow him to recapture something closer to his best form.

Team: Ruiter, Matthews, Browning, O’Shea, Oviedo; Williams, Ndong, Honeyman; McGeady, Watmore/McManaman, Grabban.