Wise Men Say: No need for defensive midfield role in new Sunderland set-up

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LOOKING around at some of the weekend results in the FA Cup, perhaps we should count ourselves lucky to still be in the competition.

Manchester City and Chelsea exited against lower-league opposition, while Manchester United and Liverpool have been forced to replay against similarly modest sides. In that context, our draw with Fulham on Saturday doesn’t look quite so bad.

However, those sides all have bigger fish to fry; Manchester City and Chelsea both have Champions League football to contend with, as well as Premier League title challenges to mount.

Sunderland, on the other hand, are in the midst of a dismal run of form, which has seen Gus Poyet’s “work in progress” get dragged perilously close to the relegation zone. Context isn’t always set in stone.

Against Fulham in Saturday’s fourth round tie, Poyet undid much of the good work he began the previous week at Tottenham Hotspur.

With the arrival of Jermain Defoe, and many supporters thirsty for a tactical set-up employing two strikers, Poyet reverted to a 3-5-2 system that failed him toward the end of last season.

With natural wing-backs in Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt available to him this term, suddenly it looked not only a reasonable option, but arguably the best available to him.

The performance against Spurs was a vast improvement on recent efforts in both league and cup, with Adam Johnson coming inside to fulfil the role of creator.

It was his absence and Poyet’s poor handling of his replacement that led to the majority of our problems on Saturday.

With three central defenders in the team, the holding midfield role Poyet loves becomes utterly redundant. The third centre-back provides cover, allowing the wing-backs to push forward, while also giving an option to bring the ball out of defence.

Having someone in the side to drop deep simply congests the rear end of the team, while reducing outlets higher up the pitch.

Bafflingly, Poyet chose his expert in the holding midfield position, Liam Bridcutt, ahead of his two seemingly obvious alternatives to Johnson – Emanuele Giaccherini and Ricky Alvarez.

You could argue that Bridcutt needs game time, but, by the same token, so too do Giaccherini and Alvarez.

In fact, if Poyet persists with his three-man defence, those two will have far fewer opportunities to play, vying for just one position in the side, while Bridcutt is likely to be a peripheral figures with his role becoming less important.

Well, that should be the case anyway.

If Poyet continues with three defenders, there’s every chance he’ll also opt for a holding man. Of all the tactics available to him, it’s probably the most negative, but given that he decided to utilise it in a home game against lower-league opposition, what’s to say he won’t employ it again?

Regardless of what happens in the future, or what his plans were for this fixture had Jack Rodwell not been stupidly sent off, his decision to play Bridcutt from the start was as astonishing as it was predictably bad.

To then bring on the continually poor Will Buckley ahead of the two aforementioned schemers was equally frustrating. Buckley makes more sense as a wing-back on paper, but Giaccherini has played in the role at international level, and at least offers some technical ability.

Now we’re left to face a replay at Craven Cottage on the back of a crucial game against Burnley this weekend.

Poyet must take some time to reflect on where he’s getting things wrong and adjust his side accordingly.

One thing that definitely won’t help his cause is venting frustration supporters have every right to be irked by what they’re seeing at the Stadium of Light at the moment.

* The Wise Men Say podcast is available every Monday, with SAFC debate from a variety of guests and post-match reaction from Gus Poyet. You can stream it direct from wisemensay.co.uk or subscribe to it on iTunes.