Are Chris Coleman's Sunderland too trusting in youth?

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 31 January 2018, 09:12

When Chris Coleman first took charge at the Stadium of Light, he was acutely aware of what had caused the club’s problems.

Between June 2013 and the Welshman’s arrival in November 2017, the club had made just 11 permanent signings of players under 25 – and six of them didn’t even get into double figures on appearances. Four years of short-term thinking had left Sunderland lumbered with a squad of old, slow players who had been signed in knee-jerk circumstances tied down to extensive contracts, as the connection between the club and it’s fans slowly dissipated.

Coleman wanted to reverse that: he wanted players who were hungry to prove themselves, who could press the opposition and who could re-build that bond with support. Six of the starting eleven in Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat at Birmingham was under 25 – Tyias Browning, Jake Clarke-Salter, Ethan Robson, Josh Maja, George Honeyman and Joel Asoro - all six of those players are at the very early stages of their professional career. Could that be part of the problem?

That lack of experience arguably puts those players at a significant disadvantage, both physically and in terms of tactical awareness. Clarke-Salter, who won every possible honour in youth football, showed the step up required when he got caught out of position for the first two goals.

For the second for example, arguably the play should have been stopped when Lamine Kone was down injured in the centre-circle, but Clarke-Salter was naïve. The 20-year-old rushed out into a wide area to close down Maghoma, as if unaware that Tyias Browning was the only centre-back left in the box, thus Boga had a free header for the hosts.

That’s not to say that experienced players didn’t have bad games too: Kone wasn’t fit, wing-back Oviedo was torn apart by Birmingham’s right flank and Lee Cattermole didn’t exactly cover himself in glory in midfield. However, when a few older players perform badly it is important that there are others in the team who have at least had three full seasons under their belt and will provide some composure and perhaps physicality.

Robbin Ruiter almost always went long with his goal kicks, yet forwards 5’11” Maja, 5’9” Asoro and 5’8” Honeyman aren’t necessarily the types suited to battling centre-backs in the air. Sunderland’s better play came in the last 20 minutes, when they played more football on the deck after Aiden McGeady and new signing Kazenga Lua Lua entered the fray.

The duo had the presence of mind to hold onto the ball in good areas and added craft to the mix. McGeady, who had one or two decent efforts himself, linked up nicely with Oviedo in the closing stages, leading to a couple of penalty-box blocks and a goal-line clearance, prior to Oviedo’s consolation strike. McGeady and Lua Lua have a decent pedigree and could have a part to play in Sunderland’s attempts to beat the drop.

As much as Coleman felt like youth was needed to re-energize the club, their struggles at St Andrews suggests balance is the order of the day.

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