One year since Sunderland… Squad Review


Yes, Christmas came early, another new addition to the utmp writing team! @MitchCooksLeftFoot joins us and will be chipping in with a few special editions for utmp. If you like his stuff and want more regular content then visit his pride and joy here Mitch Cook’s Left Foot. As there is no game, he gives us a squad review, welcome to the team, MCLF! 

It seems a very, very long time since we played Sunderland last, even though it’s only one year. Plenty has happened since. You might have heard of this mad thing called ‘coronavirus’ which is invisible but gets everywhere – it’s had a bit of an impact. Anyway, if you haven’t got on top of that breaking news yet, I’d recommend having a look when you’ve got a minute cos it’s a bit mental. With no game on Tuesday thanks to the ‘rona, it seems as good a time as any to take stock and review where we are. 

What else has happened? Just the almost total turnover of the squad and the bizarre spectacle of behind closed doors football being the absolute norm. Existential threats to football clubs, weird plots by the top 6, mad amounts of subs and plenty more… It’s been a season like no other and thus, rolling the clock back a year gives a nice contrast to the old days when everything was normal. 

What feels strange is, about this time 1 year ago, (in fact, we were slightly further into the league season) we travelled to the Stadium of Light with high expectations, riding high on the crest of a wave of 7 unbeaten games, sitting 4th in the table, just a few points off the automatic promotion positions. We were loud and proud and typically stubborn and resolute that day, but it was the beginning of the end for Larry as we barely played well again under him. 

Now, the optimism is even higher than this time in 2019, talk abounds of when, not if, we will catch the leaders and yet, we’re 12th with a negative goal difference (compared to 4th a positive difference of 7 before the Sunderland game in Dec 2019).

Football is a strange game. 

We generally agree that all we need for a post Christmas present is a new striker and we’re sure to rip the division to bits. Someone with a record for scoring goals, someone with a poachers instinct perhaps. Someone like Will Grigg was supposed to be for Sunderland perhaps? 58 games and a grand total of 7 goals later, they’re still hoping he’ll burst into flames, perhaps whilst ideally stood quite close to Charlie Methven who I imagine wears a combustible amount of aftershave. What Grigg shows is – it’s never easy to buy victory and sometimes the missing jigsaw piece turns out not to fit. I’m sure I can remember a time when we all thought we were only a Chris Malkin away from being really good. 

I digress… We’re clearly in very good shape and what follows reveals a squad bursting with options in most positions.

Strikers: 

There’s nowt wrong with the two strikers we have, Madine being as good a target man as you could expect in League One and Yates as hard working as you could ask for at any level. Both possess a slightly mercurial quality, capable of the sublime but neither make scoring seem like a routine thing. The best strikers I’ve seen for Pool had that quality, Ellis and Phillips (and for a career high 18 months Scotty Taylor) seemed to just get the ball and score a goal. It was that simple. We sung that at Andy Preece who made it a bit harder than the song suggested but whilst the names of the above didn’t fit the song, it was how they played. Right now it’s as if we’ve got two supporting artists up front, a really good line up overall, but no headline act. Yates is a bit ‘Brett-esque’ in his work rate, but we don’t play like we did under Macca and he doesn’t get the weight of chances that Brett did. I actually think he’s possibly a better finisher than Brett but his movement is inferior and it’s easy to forget how searingly quick Brett mark1 was, which, for all his excellent qualities, Yates isn’t. 

Is Bez a striker? Who knows. He looked like a right waste of money when I first saw him, just cutting in everytime and losing the ball but then in the recent Tinpot Cup games, he’s been a man reborn, coming deep, threading through balls, showing guile, vision and craft. He’s certainly got pace and the right build to cause a few problems up front but we’ve not yet seen what happens if you play him off Big Gaz and I’m really not sure (like a few other players) what exactly he is. I like him though.

I’m not sure if Ollie Sarkic really knows what he is but unlike Bez, I’m finding it quite hard to imagine him on the pitch any more. I quite like his intelligence and touch but he’s had a run of awful luck and he feels like he’s the answer to a question we aren’t asking.

Midfield:

(I’m incapable of conceptualising the rest of the front 3 as ‘strikers’ so we’ll crack on as if it’s 1998 and the world is made of a 4-4-2) CJ has been excellent. Yes, he could cross better but if he could cross better he’d be playing for Sheffield United or someone. His flaws are our gain as there is no way on earth someone with consistent end product and that degree of pace and physical presence would be in League One. He’s a simple player but that’s his strength and you count the number of games where he’s not been our most dangerous player on one hand.

Kenny Dougall is another high class performer who has changed the narrative of the season almost single handedly. We started the year looking flimsy and lacking in fight. The effort was there to run the yards, but not the terrier like determination to grab the game by the neck. Dougall’s bite and tenacity have transformed our midfield and as he’s got fitter and settled in, he’s revealed a real vision in his passing, comfortable hitting it first time or switching the play long and speeding up what was at times a technically good but ponderously slow style of play. 

Sullay has flickered into life on and off as he does. He frustrates many and is regarded as ‘a luxury’ but to me, he’s a necessity. We lack magic in midfield and Sullay provides it. Yes, sometimes he goes to pull a rabbit out and finds the hat empty or actually saws the assistant in half mistake but he tries things no one else can do or see. He’s joint top with assists and whilst he’s missed a few howlers, he’s also pretty good at sneaking into the box and should have more goals to his name.  To me, you discard a player of his ability at your peril.

For Sullay, you could also read Keshi. He’s skillful and when he’s on song, looks an absolute handful but I’m not quite sure where we need to play him. He’s played in central midfield and looked ‘not quite a central midfielder,’ as well as wide left and just behind the front man. For me, he’s not quite fit perfectly anywhere but everytime he plays, he brings a little frisson of excitement. He’s not as outrageously gifted as Kaikai but he’s a bit more combative and I’d guess we might see the two swap the shirt on the left side depending on whether Critch wants to stick or twist.

Ethan Robson started the season as my favourite new signing. He looks composed, skillful and physically adept. He remains so, but there’s perhaps a question mark over his influence on games. He’s got the attributes and he does the work but similar to Grant Ward, all to often I’m left thinking he’s not quite played the killer pass or taken a shot when he could have done. Both Ward and Robson will probably find themselves taking turns or battling to partner Kenny D and when you see both at their best, you have to say that’s a high quality pair to be fighting for a shirt. I like both Robson and Ward getting a bit higher up the pitch than we’ve sometimes seen them and both of them possess a beautiful strike from the edge of the box that you’d hope we’ll see more of as we try to score more (something we’re going to need to do). 

For both players, you’d wonder if a more mobile striker would create chances – Robson for the through ball he often seems to be looking for and Ward to exploit spaces create with second runs into the hole left by the hypothetical front man. 

That still leaves Matty Virtue who will, like MJ Williams battle for every ball and be entirely competent, Dan Kemp , who gives it a spectacular amount of effort, no little skill, likes to get in the box and who is frankly undervalued by the manager in my opinion as well as Ben Woodburn who is probably the player who has achieved least in his time on the pitch of any of the midfield options but as everyone knows comes from Liverpool so MUST be good (like they’ve never produced any duds ever!) To be fair to Woodburn, he’s never had a real run in the side and his touch in the winning move against Hull should give him some confidence. 

Defence: 

At the back, Marvin has grown into a real player. What I like about him most is his ability to time a tackle. He watches the ball, watches his man and strikes like a cobra. It’s a real skill to go to ground, slide and play the ball cleanly and he does it regularly, often in the box. He started the season looking shaky as hell and has got more solid with each game, helped by the departure of the arguably ill used Michael Nottingham and the presence of the Daniels, Ballard and Gretarsson. He’s still prone to falling over the ball occasionally or a dozy pass but like CJ, a player who possesses his strengths without his (increasingly less noticeable) weaknesses would be at least a division higher than he is. 

Gretarsson has proved an astute signing. Whilst initially it looked as if he might be a bit lightweight, he’s dispelled that impression and he just looks class. Positionally he’s excellent and he’s good with ball at his feet as well. He’s the sort of player you go games without really noticing and then conclude he must be really good as a result. 

Dan Ballard is immense. He combines a bulky Andy Morrison type determination and presence with a superb touch and distribution. Whilst you can actually imagine Woodburn and even Kemp as a player who might have come up through our level, Ballard is, like KDH last year, simply a cut above the rest of the division already. He’s such a good player that I reckon he would do a job up front if we were stuck. There’s an idea Critch. I’ll take cheque or postal order. 

At full back, we’ve got a really strong set of options. Husband might not be to everyone’s tastes but I admire his wholehearted approach. His discipline is questionable but his commitment and solidity would get him into most League 1 sides including some of the ones currently above us in my opinion. Garbutt is a step up as a footballer and whilst I questioned at first if he was a bit of a show pony, as he’s got fitter, his defensive work has been the equal of his delivery into the box. Some would have him playing higher up, but to me his game is built around arriving late and either overlapping or crossing from a deep spot and I think he lacks a trick to play higher up. 

Ollie Turton is the whipping boy everytime we lose but I can’t really think of much he’s done wrong. In fact, I’d say in some of our poorer games, Turton has emerged with credit when few others did. He’s ‘just’ a decent right back. Yes, sometimes his delivery isn’t perfect but as the back four has improved, Turton has been essential in the solidity of the unit and the epitome of functional. That’s not to be sniffed at. Gabriel is quality and like Kemp, I wonder if we’ve used him to his fullest. Possibly Critch got scared after he was culpable a few times in the Ipswich debacle but even in that game he strode forward, showed determination and no little skill. He’s possibly the opposite of Turton – an exciting full back – and like Garbutt and Husband contrast, the fact we’ve got two players with differing qualities at right back and left back is a massive strength. 

Maxwell is key to this team. Ok, he’s conceded a couple this year where you’d feel he might have done better, especially early in the year when the defence didn’t inspire confidence but as the season has gone on, he’s gained confidence in coming off his line and in the last few weeks has pulled off a string of top drawer stops. It’s not his goalkeeping that makes him essential though. It’s his work with his feet which means he’s the unquestioned no1. He allows us to play at the back by always being a spare man and 9 (or more) times out of ten, receives and distributes the ball as well as, if not better than an outfield player. The games where he hasn’t played, it’s been immediately obvious that him not being there changes us at the back and watching the majority of opposition keepers also shows just how unusually good as a footballer Maxwell is for a keeper. 

Conclusion: 

We’re a very solid team, I’ve never seen us have such depth for the level we’re at but ultimately we lack the cutting edge to race through the division. It feels as if we could take on anyone and not lose which is a tremendous base to work from but equally, we might just still be capable of taking on teams we might feel we should beat and not winning. 

Is that a question of personnel or tactics? I think it’s a bit of both as we obviously need someone to push/compliment the Yates/Madine dream team. 

Critchley solved the first problem the season posed, namely ‘how do we stop conceding crap goals’ with resounding success. The second question ‘How do we score goals’ was partly solved by going to a more pragmatic 4-4-2 and the developing confidence of the players as a result but it feels as if it’s only been a partial solution. 

I’m not sure that either the Liverpool impression or the 90s throwback formation is the answer in and of themselves. Critchley has proved to be a very different manager than I expected. I thought we’d see gung ho football and chance after chance with us backing ourselves to get one more than the other team, but actually, I think our weakness is not getting players into the box. For all the differences with last year, our strongest attacking player is still our right winger (and the other best assister is the the left winger) and whilst CJ’s delivery isn’t perfect, we seem to still suffer from a weakness whereby he pulls it back to one or two players, not a raft of them all storming the box. If we imagine both Garbutt and Gabriel featuring in future games, that need to make more of crossing chances and square balls only becomes more important. 

Critchley might sometimes have made some stubborn choices or shown himself not especially flexible in games, but he deserves massive credit overall. To fuse such disparate signings into an effective side is no mean feat. This could have gone very wrong and for a short while it looked as if might be doing. The poor performances earlier in the season I’d write off as aberrations but for a while it looked as if the side who dominated 90 minutes against Crewe without really mustering a shot or who played one of the poorest games I’ve seen for ages against a terrible MK Dons and won seemingly by accident might be the real Pool. Happily, it wasn’t and now we’re a side who can both pass and move and street fight with the best of them. 

This is a very good squad, a very good team. I wonder though, if we don’t need to gamble a little more if we are to haul in the leaders. 

Fear no one. We are tangerine. 

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Published by Mitch Cook's Left Foot

Football blogger. Use too many words.

2 thoughts on “One year since Sunderland… Squad Review

  1. Interesting thoughts I cannt understand why we are not top of the league having read your views about the players . There again you probably didnt watch the game on saterday .If i had been served a meal of that standard at a local cafe I would have sent it back and asked for a refund.I know conditions were bad but come on the players are beeing paidto entertain and saterdays performance was like drawing teeth..I DONT know where you think we can pass and move unless its chasing long balls foreward once we reach the opposition area we become devoid of ideas(except for the winner agaist Hull) touch and passing go out the window. Our crosses into the box cause few problems as we donnt get enough playersinto the box. When did we last score a headed goal direct from a corner or free kick (you will probably tell me) Ive been a pool fan since the early fifties and whilst the current manager is doing OK we are still far off the finished article

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    1. I’ve literally written ‘We don’t get enough players into the box’

      You cannot possibly suggest we haven’t played some nice passing football at times this season. Whether we’ve been ‘effective’ as well as ‘nice’ is a moot point. Arguably we’ve looked more effective when we pass less and are less pretty.

      The last headed goal was Madine from Sullay’s free kick against Fleetwood I think!

      I think the overall point of the article is – we aren’t yet good enough to walk the league and as I said, that’s a mixture of tactics and players. Individually, the players are decent enough but we’ve not yet hit the sort of form we need. I never write to slag off players without good cause or get anyone sacked and I find it hard to look at them individually and not think ‘with one or two more, that’s an amazing squad’

      I thought the Accy game was a right slog and if you wish to read my thoughts on that, they’re here: https://mclfoot.blogspot.com/2020/12/this-year-christmas-really-is-cancelled.html – it’s division 3, you’re always going to get games like that from time to time.

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