by Peter Glynn
Paolo Di Canio departed West Bromwich Albion on Saturday afternoon claiming he “wouldn’t change” and in the end it was this inflexibility, both on and off the pitch, which meant the Sunderland board made the change for him.
Stubbornness proved the Italian’s undoing. The 45 year-old’s failure to balance his attacking instincts with greater tactical nous was a key factor in Saturday’s 3-0 reversal. It was the Black Cats’ fourth defeat of a stuttering campaign and one which sees them anchored to the foot of the Premier League table.
Di Canio had pleaded for patience whilst his collection of new arrivals developed greater harmony. Saturday’s defeat, however, was less a result of unfamiliar faces and more to do with the arrangement of his newcomers on the pitch.
One of the features of the former Lazio forward’s new-look side had been a daring frontline of two centre forwards flanked by two wide players.
Such a bold attacking approach requires robust defensive cover, an aspect of Di Canio’s plan painfully exposed at The Hawthorns where West Brom debutant Stephane Sessegnon and summer signing Morgan Amalfitano were allowed to inflict much damage.
The swollen number of attackers in the visitors’ forward department regularly meant central midfielders Craig Gardner and Ki Sung Yeung were overrun; a problem mirrored on both flanks. With widemen Adam Johnson and Emanuele Giaccherini deployed high up the pitch full-backs Ondrej Celustka and Jack Colback were left exposed and vulnerable.
Steve Clarke’s West Brom adopted a starting shape of 4-2-3-1 against Di Canio’s open 4-4-2 and the Baggies’ additional body in advanced midfield areas proved critical.
With former Black Cat, Sessegnon, regularly left unattended in the pockets of space between his former employers’ flat midfield and defence the hosts were able to create attacking overloads, outnumbering the opposition in key attacking areas.
After 20 minutes, the Benin international was free to link play in central areas before sweeping the ball wide to the impressive Amalfitano.
The Frenchman’s cross was directed towards goal by Scott Sinclair and with Sunderland goalkeeper Kieren Westwood only able to parry, Sessegnon was free to record his first goal in blue and white.
With Sunderland’s midfield duo occupied by direct midfield opponents Youssouf Mulumbu and James Morrison, there was a case for one of Sunderland’s central defenders to have stepped out to nullify Sessegnon’s threat.
However, in keeping with most central defenders, John O’Shea or Modibo Diakite appeared awkward leaving the security of the back four, happier to allow Sessegnon to receive and turn rather than to risk leaving a hole in the back four.
With modern attacking trends favouring withdrawn and roaming forwards, the defender of the future will, however, have to become skilled at defending one-against-one in unfamiliar areas of the pitch.
Rather than instruct central defenders to leave their defensive station, managers with a taste for expansive formations often attempt to secure the space in front of the back four with a holding midfielder. Tasked with guarding dangerous playmaking space, plugging gaps in the backline and covering attacking full-backs, the multi-functional role of the defensive-minded midfielder is a necessity in a side who pour numbers forward.
Likewise, a skilled defensive midfielder senses where additional defensive reinforcement is required, shuffling around the pitch to double up against dangerous opponents. As Sunderland committed more energy and personnel forward in the second period, additional defensive protection in wide areas was a critical requirement.
With vast expanses of grass to run into the impressive Amalifitano tortured Sunderland left-back Colback with his direct running and ability to take the ball both on the inside and outside of his marker.
With Sunderland unwilling to sacrifice attacking bodies to attend to the danger, the on-loan Marseille attacker dispatched a back-post cross for Liam Ridgewell to volley the Baggies’ second before adding a third with a drilled strike across Westwood.
Attacking intentions are misplaced if they fail to be part of a coherent overall plan with equal balance in attack and defence.
The modern game is dominated by teams who are both solid and compact defensive units and expansive, daring attacking forces. The art of the game comes in the ability to transform and change from one mode to another quickly and effectively.
Transitions await both Sunderland and Di Canio.
Peter Glynn is the Editorial Manager at St. George's Park and editor of The Boot Room, The FA's Coaching Magazine.
Peter is a journalist and has been with The Football Association for six years and holds the UEFA B Licence and The FA Youth Awards 1 and 2.
The Future Game Tactics Column takes a weekly look at the evolution of the modern game, linking to practices from The FA's Future Game philosophy and providing advice and tips for grassroots coaches.