Sunderland’s captain is struggling in a side that was built around him. He absolutely will be back (I mean, come on) but how would the team line up if he was benched for a bit?
As Lee Cattermole strolled unawares into the loving embrace of Steve Bruce’s side eight years ago, the manager made it clear this kid was no ordinary signing.
“Lee is very, very like [Roy Keane]. He’s fiercely competitive, driven. . . Lee reminds me of him in his attitude for the game. . . Lee epitomises how I want Sunderland to play.”
If you catch his drift.
To say that the now-29-year-old copied and pasted Keane’s career successes would be a stretch, but such commitment to the young prospect was telling. While the Irishman was invaluable at Manchester United and became the foil to Paul Scholes’ blade, teams on Wearside have been built around “Clatters”.
Since 2009, the defensive-midfielder has tucked into more manager’s plans than [insert high-waistband joke here] and there has always been a place for a happy and healthy Cattermole in their squad.
But that’s just it. Is he either right now?
Don’t lie – you expected him to tear up this league as much as I did, but somehow it just hasn’t happened. There’s a case to be made that he’s been in decline for some time, but as a cliché “form-is-temporary-class-is-permanent” type of guy I’d suggest that’s more down to the team than the player.
In any case with the club in desperate need of points and unable to spare any match fit players, could the team begin their assault up the table with Cattermole benched while he rediscovers his feet? Here are three quick possibilities:
1. The Straight Swap
A similarity that Cattermole and Keane share is that after dynamic starts to their careers, they both learned to sit deeper and occupy more of a “Regista” role (cheers for the lingo, Football Manager) in their respective sides. A deck of disciplinary cards has often drawn attention from an impressive knack for distributing the ball, but (as Gus Poyet best revealed) Sunderland can be a force to be reckoned with in a 4-1-4-1 with Cattermole pulling the threadbare strings.
It’s also interesting that Chris Coleman lined up in more or less the same way in his first game in charge. The formation puts a big emphasis on the holding midfielder but Darron Gibson put in a remarkably assured performance, completing as many tackles (4) as any other player on the pitch and making 89% of his passes. It’s also a role that a fully fit Paddy McNair – with a bit of time – could make his own.
2. No Defensive Midfielders
Chris Coleman is no stranger to playing three at the back, though he may find it slightly more difficult to achieve with a squad as thinly spread as the Black Cats. Having said that, a “why the hell not” approach to the back line could provide respite for some other issues. . .
Another stocky defender means another bailout every time a keeper doesn’t rush to collect a cross, means another physical presence to help out with set-pieces, means another player dedicated to breaking down a counter attack, means no need for a dedicated defensive midfield setup – all costly problems for Sunderland this season.
Perhaps not a viable option until the terrifyingly important January transfer window, but a 3-4-3 with two box-to-box midfielders (N’Dong and Gooch?) would play to the team’s attacking strengths while also keeping the ball on the floor – a big aim of Coleman’s.
3. Finish What Grayson Started
Calm yourselves right down.
All I’m saying is that a 4-2-3-1 can be a very effective setup, but it needs to executed a little better. Sunderland are ranked 4th in the league for average pass distance, which obviously doesn’t suit this older/less physical group of players. So far in the Championship we’ve seen the following holding-midfield partnerships:
- Cattermole/N’Dong (11 games – 18 conceded)
- N’Dong/Rodwell (1 game – 2 conceded)
- Cattermole/Gibson (2 games – 6 conceded)
- N’Dong/Gibson (2 games – 5 conceded)
- Cattermole/McNair (1 game – 2 conceded)
More than anything, these consistently poor performances show that it’s not so much the problem of who’s on the pitch than the way they’re being asked to play.
More than anything else, Coleman has emphasised his desire for teamwork which we can only hope (and, oh man, I’m praying) addresses the problem head-on. Besides, when they both return to the first team, a midfield combination of Didier N’Dong and Paddy McNair could prove a tantalising alternative to the out-of-sorts Cattermole.