Should Sunderland stick with five defenders as relegation fears deepen?

SAFC 0-2 ITFC 03-02-2018. Picture by FRANK REID
SAFC 0-2 ITFC 03-02-2018. Picture by FRANK REID
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In the 13 games since Chris Coleman took charge, Sunderland have picked up 14 points.

Updating the Championship table to include the form of all 24 teams in that time and Sunderland sit in 18th place, five points clear of the bottom three.

That is a neat summary of Coleman’s time on Wearside so far. Sunderland have improved beyond doubt, playing with superior organisation and discipline. The statistic that fundamentally backs that up is that having not kept a clean sheet all season, they have five since the arrival of the new manager on November 19th.

To his own frustration, however, the improvement has not been significant enough and they are as deep in the relegation mire as they were three months ago.

The greatest concern has been goalscoring. Not since the 2-0 win over Burton Albion have the Black Cats scored more than once in a game. Many have wondered whether it is time to move away from the back five that Coleman has used almost exclusively in this time so far.

It is a difficult dilemma. While there have been some desperate performances, against Fulham, Hull City and the first half and hour against Ipswich Town, Sunderland were as creative and threatening going forward as at any time playing 4-4-2 earlier in the season.

Chris Coleman has, too, brought in players last month who fit the system and bring it closer to posing the counter-attacking threat he wants from his side. Ovie Ejaria is a natural in either of the more advanced central positions, as is Jonny Williams who will soon return from injury. Ashley Fletcher brings pace and height for a strike partner to play off while Kazenga LuaLua adds a direct option through the middle.

While Coleman will tinker on occasions, it would be a suprise to see him move away from the system. On the whole the defensive side of the game has been significantly better and he will now feel he has the profile of player he needs to ensure that his team do not suffer disproportionately at the other end. He also has the back-up option of dropping one of the strikers for an extra attacking midfielder, bringing Aiden McGeady into the equation as he searches for more creative output.

As the games begin to run down and the situation becomes more critical, McGeady, who remains the top scorer at the club this season, will surely have a part to play.

The trip to Bristol City presents a more immediate conundrum for Coleman with the injury list still causing problems.

Marc Wilson could be back in the fold but at this stage it seems as though both Lamine Kone and Jake Clarke-Salter will miss out.

Billy Jones played centre-back against Ipswich in order to keep the shape of the side but was at fault for the first goal and struggled throughout. It would be a surprise if Sunderland went with a back five again should none of their specialists recover in time, particularly given an injury to Adam Matthews that further limits the defensive options.

The biggest challenge for Coleman is a mental one, rather than tactical.

Extraordinarily, Sunderland have not lost a game in which they have scored first this season, but have taken only two points from the games in which they have conceded first. Neither of those came under Chris Coleman.

The squad have shown they can be cause problems with this system, the problem has been doing it in adversity.

That has to end immediately, whether it is four or five at the back against Bristol City.