Simon Grayson’s plan for Sunderland becoming clearer after counter attacking win

Simon Grayson gives orders out on Saturday.
Simon Grayson gives orders out on Saturday.
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There have been times during this pre-season, as there always are, when things on the field have seemed muddled and a starting XI for the season-opener a long way away.

Players out of position, players playing who will soon be leaving, youngsters who you suspect you will not see much senior action in the months ahead.

In an encouraging 45 minutes at Bradford, however, the shape of Simon Grayson’s side began to reveal itself.

There are still concerns, questions to be answered.

The defence looked ragged in the closing stages, fundamental errors from Papy Djilobodji putting the back line under pressure it didn’t always look like it could cope with.

On that note, it is best at this point to hope that the pressure of league action concentrates the minds, and that growing familiarity between new partnerships brings greater stability.

What did encourage, without doubt, was how quickly and succcessfully Sunderland counter-attacked. It was 3-0 at half time but it could easily have been more.

For the first time, it was easy to see the game-plan and how Grayson wants to set up his team.

He went with just two in central midfield, Cattermole and Ndong bringing the energy required for the Championship battle. Winning second balls and breaking up the play is a key part of any midfielder’s role in this division and in these two Grayson has exactly what he needs.

The centre-halves kept it simple. Whether through a preference for a direct game or simply a belief that the players at his disposal are not capable of playing out from the back, they have an obvious direction to go from back to front and James Vaughan brings the presence needed to give that a chance of working.

Vaughan himself is in obvious need of a goal, snatching at chances and lacking the crucial confidence in front of goal. In his early appearances for the Black Cats it is clear that he will bring a high work rate, pressing the opposition and playing with his back to goal to bring the rest of the front line into the game.

Whoever plays alongside him will have to be capable of dropping a touch deeper to link in with the midfield, and have the pace to get in behind and offer a presence in the box, particularly when Sunderland look to build nown the flanks and get a delivery into the box.

Grayson is interested in the likes of Ross McCormack and Lewis Grabban, players who regularly played these roles and thrived in them.

Josh Maja has offered such a clear example of how the position should be played that he without question deserves to be considered as a viable contender when August 4 finally arrives.

Where Grayson will look to find his main threat is from the wide areas, and it is here where the biggest improvement has been seen since the dire showing at St Johnstone.

There, Jeremain Lens and Wahbi Khazri were not on anywhere near the same wavelength as their full-backs, offering little defensive support and running into blind alleys when they did receive the ball.

Here, they were far more disciplined.

In the early stages, Khazri pushed up further and slightly infield, while Lens was surprisingly deep, at times resembling a second right-back.

When he did get the ball, however, he did serious damage as he carried the ball upfield and the pair were regularly in discussion with Grayson in the first half.

During one break, Lens tried an ambitious lofted pass for Maja, easily gathered by the Bradford goalkeeper.

His manager urged him to run with the ball next time, which he did, carrying the ball 40 yards before being hacked down. The value of a player with such individual quality is obvious, drawing so many defenders into his bubble and creating so much space for others.

Both may yet feature very little, if at all, in the Championship campaign but the point is that whoever replaces them will be asked to fulfil similar roles.

Aiden McGeady is a ready-made replacement for Khazri on the left, while Duncan Watmore will be a great option when he returns from injury.

One more wide option would be required as the youngster builds himself back up to fitness.

Sunderland face an uphill task to win promotion this season. With or without their star duo out wide, their starting XI will not be the strongest in the league, particularly not in light of Middlesbrough and Aston Villa’s summer spending.

A reliable source of goals is still needed and the defence has been a long way off the standard required so far.

The poor end to this Bradford win was testament to that, but some comfort can be taken from the fact that six games into his tenure, Sunderland are starting to resemble a Simon Grayson side.

Will that make them Championship challengers?

New recruits are needed before anyone can suggest that, but positive steps have at least been taken.

Make no mistake, this season depends largely on what happens with Lens and Khazri.

If they leave, players who replace them will have to be capable of providing pace and invention from the wings if Grayson is to succeed.