With a new system in place at the club focusing on passing, the area of the first XI which holds the key to success is our midfield. With an accurate, sharp and technically astute core - winning games through knocking the ball about would be much easier. There is, however, an ongoing debate as to what that midfield should contain in terms of personnel. It is one of the few areas in which Gus Poyet has some depth and the right group of players must be selected in ‘the engine room’ in order to accentuate the team’s pedigree. We have already seen most of our midfielders take on this style - but what is our best midfield combination?
No Man's Land
The first question regarding the midfield is the team’s formation. For the majority of the campaign so far, we have used a vague 4-3-3 formation containing three central men. There are a few positives to this system; possession is easily retained, there is the potentiality for midfielders to join the attack without defensive worries and it is possible to have a midfielder sitting in front of the back four whilst another two lie further up field. However, this system means the isolation of the centre forward (Steven Fletcher or Jozy Altidore), the creators have less targets to aim for in attack and counter attacks are harder to come by. Ultimately the capability of the majority of the team’s midfielders means the current system is best suited to a three piece in the middle of the pitch.
There are a pool of guys who are considered week in week out for a midfield berth. To use the formation to its full potential, there must be one midfielder employed in a defensive role – responsible for breaking up the play. Lee Cattermole, Craig Gardner and Cabral are the three defensive midfielders at the club and in comparison there is only one man who warrants the place. Cabral’s participation has minimal to the point of exclusion and it looks as if the Cape Verdean’s Sunderland career simply won’t work out. In Gardner and Cattermole there are two common yet overhyped red card threats, and, although it is always preferable to go 90 minutes without a dismissal, the relatively low risk is worth taking for the protection of our inconsistent defence. Despite having played two less games than Gards, Cattermole has made thrice as many interceptions and has a better tackle success rate by 7%. Contrary to the belief of those who don’t support the club, Cattermole’s discipline has improved and his defensive contributions warrant a start when fit.
Statistically, despite his poor performance against Tottenham, the best midfielder at the club is Jack Colback. Jack had to endure a long spell as an auxiliary fullback and despite impressing, it is back in the middle of the park where the tireless and skilful local lad is at his brilliant best. His role would be best described as a ‘box-to-box’ midfielder, as his contributions are telling outside both 18-yard lines. Whilst having the highest number of clearances as well as being second only to Sebastian Larsson in the interception count, Colback has an excellent passing accuracy of 87% combined with a 60% success rate when taking on other players. Without further ado, it is Colback, frustratingly lacking a nickname, who should occupy a place in Poyet’s midfield regardless of others.
The final part of the middle ground should ideally come in the form of a playmaker. Seb Larsson provides endurance, speed and potency from the set piece. Ki Sung-Yueng, however, offers one of the most accurate passes in the league and a powerful shot. Recent games have seen the two pitted together but with the defence looking a little lacking in protection, only one will be accommodated should Poyet look to avoid repeats of the four goals shipped against Chelsea. Although the elegant Swede offers plenty of work and glimpses of the sublime, Ki’s consistent array of flawless distribution and ability to take players on means he is essentially the perfect lynchpin in the Gus Poyet system. Set pieces do remain a weakness without Larsson but Ki himself has been known to deliver fine service from a dead ball both at Swansea and Celtic.
If this continues not to work, and goals would be a worry given the number contributed by this midfield three, then January is around the corner and perhaps we should expect one or two new midfielders to compete for a starting berth.