The changes Jack Ross could realistically make as he looks to get Sunderland back on track

BAFC 2-1 SAFC EFL League1 15-09-2018. Picture by FRANK REID
BAFC 2-1 SAFC EFL League1 15-09-2018. Picture by FRANK REID
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Jack Ross is eager to put a swift end to Sunderland’s winless run when Rochdale arrive at the Stadium of Light this weekend.

The Black Cats boss knows that the habit of conceding both early in games and from set pieces is hurting his team’s chances.

He wants to see them improve their physicality, saying: “I think physically we’re wilting in that opening period.

“I don’t think we’re preparing ourselves for contact enough and preparing ourselves to use our bodies in that period.

“Sometimes you don’t realise how physical the game is and that’s at all levels. Even teams that pop it about still have a physicality about them.

“That’s not because we’ve not got physicality because that team on Saturday was arguably getting towards the biggest and strongest we’ve named in an actual physical sense. We just need to get better at that.

“We’re probably encouraging teams to gain territory. That’s something we’ve psoken about and practised but they need to then produce it out on the pitch.”

He also admits, however, that he is still searching for the right formula in terms of his starting XI.

So what changes can he realistically make, both in terms of personnel and system?

We run through three options...

Bring in Flanagan

Sunderland were noticeably poor in the full-back department at the Pirelli Stadium and it was no surprise that the first goal came as Bryan Oviedo was easily beaten to the byline by Marvin Sordell.

Oviedo, of course, had been a doubt for the game due to his international commitments and so he would be expected to improve come Saturday.

On the other flank, however, Tom Flanagan’s time has surely arrived.

He may not be a natural going forward but he is vocal and will improve Sunderland’s set pieces both in defence and in attack.

Even a short cameo against Fleetwood Town showed that, almost scoring from a corner late on.

The lopsided 3-5-2 Ross used earlier in the season looks perfect for Flanagan, offering additional cover to the centre-backs and allowing Oviedo to stay high where he can hurt opponents.

Alternatively, Ross could really tighten things up by playing Flanagan in an orthodox three and sacrificing his wingers.

After last season’s travails and insipid football at the Stadium of Light, however, that is surely something to be avoided.

Move Sinclair infield

Sinclair would perhaps be a touch fortunate to keep his place for the Rochdale visit after being hooked early in the second half on Saturday.

The Watford loanee was as guilty as anyone in terms of losing the physical battle, comfortably beaten on numerous occasions by stand-in defender Lucas Akins.

He was playing out of position, however, and often left too deep to cause the damage he is capable of.

With Charlie Wyke seemingly set for a spell on the sidelines, Sinclair could move into a more central position and be a foil for Maja, as he did so well on the opening day of the season.

His pace would also offer Sunderland a much needed outlet in terms of being able to play the ball into the channel.

That ability to get up the pitch and release the pressure is a key factor in their struggles to relieve early pressure.

Sinclair will have to lift his levels but he also needs to be utilised better.

Bolster the midfield

While Ross was right to point out Sunderland’s physical issues, they also lacked the ability to control the game in midfield.

Lee Cattermole and George Honeyman were overrun and it would be a surprise to see that experiment repeated.

Of course, the manager’s options are limited while Max Power is suspended and Dylan McGeouch is injured.

Both have the ability to help set the tempo and find Sunderland’s best attacking players in place.

In their absence, perhaps the presence of Chris Maguire as a genuine number ten could help the Black Cats operate better.

Three potential Sunderland XI’s:

1. (3-5-2) McLaughlin; Matthews, Flanagan, Loovens, Baldwin, Oviedo; Cattermole, Honeyman, Maguire; Maja, Sinclair

2. (Lopsided 3-5-2) McLaughlin; Flanagan, Loovens, Baldwin, Oviedo; Gooch, McGeouch, Cattermole, Honeyman; Sinclair, Maja

3. (4-2-3-1) McLaughlin; Flanagan, Loovens, Baldwin, Oviedo; Cattermole, Honeyman; Sinclair, Maguire, Gooch; Maja