Despite Sunderland’s stunning fight back against Bristol City, manager Chris Coleman had a warning for his players.
Having just about calmed down following an exhilarating Championship encounter at Ashton Gate, Coleman warned he wasn’t afraid to make big changes to tactics or personnel ahead of the visit of Brentford.
The comeback was full of character, spirit and resilience but the opening 45 minutes which had seen Sunderland ship three poor goals was atrocious.
With just 15 games left, Sunderland are scrapping for Championship survival, relegation to League One almost unthinkable, the opening half against the Robins can’t be repeated.
Coleman warned: “I don’t mind leaving a player out, I don’t care who he is if I think we’re going to get a result and spark a reaction.”
With that in mind, these are the big changes Coleman will be pondering ahead of the visit of Brentford:
To switch to a flat-back four?
By Coleman’s own admission, he has food for thought when it comes to which system to deploy.
His favoured three at the back and wing-back system worked reasonably well to start with but then Sunderland were on the end of defeats to Cardiff City, Birmingham City and Ipswich Town with the win over Hull City sandwiched in between.
Sunderland’s defence was all at sea against Bristol City; a ragged defensive line breached all too easily, confusion over when to play the offside trap and an inability to deal with simple through balls.
When Coleman switched to four at the back, Sunderland had a solid base from which to build with the players seemingly more confident in their roles and responsibilities.
Coleman must be close to starting with a flat back four with 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 two options.
Which defender to drop if he switches formation?
Given the defensive performances in recent weeks, there aren’t many defenders that are currently first pick.
Billy Jones provided a good cross for Lee Cattermole’s header against the crossbar but was unconvincing otherwise. John O’Shea won’t have enjoyed watching Bristol’s goals back, while Tyias Browning and Jake Clarke-Salter, outpaced and out muscled at times, haven’t covered themselves in glory.
Bryan Oviedo was poor against the Robins, he was hooked after an hour, with Clarke-Salter moved to full-back. He did okay but it isn’t his natural position.
To give the best balance it wouldn’t be a surprise if one of the three centre-backs was dropped should Coleman switch formation.
To start Aiden McGeady and/or Kazenga LuaLua?
Both had a positive impact from the subs bench, McGeady with his sixth league goal of the season and while he can frustrate when he loses possession and there are question marks over his defensive work, there is no doubt he is capable of providing something special on his day.
LuaLua caused problems when he came on and isn’t afraid to shoot from distance.
Switching to a 4-3-3 formation would allow Coleman to shoehorn either LuaLua or McGeady into an attacking role to support Ashley Fletcher and Joel Asoro, who proved a nuisance out wide against the Robins.
To include any returning players?
Central midfield has been a problem this season – and last – but Coleman would have been delighted with Cattermole as he led from the front in the second half.
Alongside him Ovie Ejaria offers a calmness and poise on the ball but tired second half and was complaining of a calf problem.
The return to action of Paddy McNair and Jonny Williams, both of who played for the Under-23s against Exeter City on Sunday, will boost Coleman’s options.
It is unlikely either will start against Brentford given how long they have been out but McNair did complete 90 minutes and Williams more than an hour.
Crucially, Coleman does at least have good options ahead of a week that could define the season with the visit of Brentford followed by a midweek trip to Bolton Wanderers and then Middlesbrough at home.
The next three games will go a long way to determining Sunderland’s Championship fate.