Phil Smith: With Jan the man missing, is it time to dump 4-3-3, Sunderland’s go-to Great Escape formation?

Jan Kirchhoff
Jan Kirchhoff
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On a damp, dark night at Hetton, it was the most reassuring of sights.

Jan Kirchhoff standing tall, taking his rightful place in front of the two centre-halves.

It was a limited display on his part, but there were traces of his unique capabilities, his reading of the game, his poise on the ball.

The recurrence of his knee injury was a morale-sapping, if not entirely unexpected, development.

If that was the last sight of him in a Sunderland shirt, it will be a crying shame.

His absence continues to be keenly felt, the squad lacking a natural defensive midfielder. The defence behind him is struggling, the attack in front missing the speed of his distribution on the counter.

Much was made of the three K’s last season. The fourth, Younes Kaboul, was just as important.

Was there any clearer sign of Sunderland’s transformation than the sight of the Frenchman, against all logic, bulldozing down the left wing?

That trident in defence, Kone, Kaboul, Kirchhoff, was the foundation of every hard-earned point in that race to safety.

Without Kaboul the defence looks shakier, without Kirchhoff the 4-3-3 system looks a poor fit.

It is a fascinating conundrum. That system has for the most part been Sunderland’s go-to. It is the system that has made them look resilient and efficient in their great escapes under Poyet, Advocaat and Allardyce, yet also one-paced and directionless the rest of the time.

For a while, it looked like it would be David Moyes’ salvation, too. With Anichebe and Watmore supporting Defoe, Jason Denayer bringing legs and discipline to the defensive midfield role, Sunderland looked on the up.

Injuries have ruined that, and recently they have looked leggy, laboured.

Now, more than ever, it looks like the time to make a break.

Moyes has rarely been able to play a consistent way, and when changes to the set-up have been made the differences have been slight, rather than dramatic.

That is unavoidable. No formation, no shape can cover the basic lack of pace in the squad, the lack of natural wingers and without Kirchhoff, a natural holding midfielder.

Which is perhaps why it is time to leave the 4-3-3 behind, and go to a formula that best suits Sunderland’s limited options.

John O’Shea has been a consistent performer for a few weeks now, and a return to the 3-5-2 that got a point out of Tottenham and destroyed Crystal Palace must surely be tempting.

A back three, with Kone and Denayer, would give Sunderland an out ball in possession, an extra aerial buffer, and some much needed speed in the back line.

It would cover for the lack of a defensive midfielder and natural wide men, Oviedo and Jones capable of getting up and down the flank.

Crucially, too, at Palace it showed it can get Januzaj and Ndong in advanced areas, breaking up play and making an impact in the centre of the pitch.

That is Sunderland’s best hope of finding Jermain Defoe. How frustrating to watch him convert from inside the box against Lithuania with such ease, teed up by Raheem Sterling’s surge to the byline.

That was a reminder of how wasted Defoe’s talent has too often been, even when he has continued to find goals.

There are other options. A return for Wahbi Khazri would send the Black Cats through the gears, though that seems unlikely.

The flat 4-4-2 that succeeded so well against Liverpool saw Seb Larsson and Fabio Borini make up for what they were lacking in pace and graft through sheer eye-watering persistence and work-rate. It was a variation on this them against Burnley, Borini pushed infield whenever possible. It almost worked.

Victor Anichebe’s return, all being well, will be major for Moyes and with his hold-up play 4-3-3 could work, particularly if Lee Cattermole’s energy returns to the heart of midfield.

Yet it increasingly feels as if the formula that has dug Sunderland out of trouble time and time again does not have the answers this time around.

David Moyes has the unenviable task of finding a system that covers his lack of pace and end product out wide, and adequate protection of his centre-halves.

It could well prove to be the impossible job, but approaching two key away games with the Crystal Palace formula in mind may be the best bet.