The makeshift tactical masterstroke that could be key to Sunderland’s chances vs Middlesbrough

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The Black Cats have been forced into a slight tactical reshuffle this week.

It was a bit like ‘Who Shot Mr. Burns?’, but with fewer homicidal babies and more Hugo Boss gilets. On Tuesday afternoon, Tony Mowbray sat down for his press conference, presumably muted his phone in case he got any inconveniently-timed calls from the missus, and proceeded to explain that an unnamed, tactically-vital Sunderland player had sustained an injury and would be absent from the Black Cats’ midweek tangle with Watford.

Immediately, sales of deerstalkers and comedically-oversized magnifying glasses went through the roof on Wearside. Who was this mystery casualty of such concerning proportions? Was it Jack Clarke, the svelte menace of the Championship? Was it Trai Hume, the moustachioed black market vendor of flawless reducers? Was it Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with a candlestick? Alas, no, it was Alex Pritchard, the impish midfielder who, more through necessity than epiphany, has finally received his fair share of dues in recent weeks.

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With Pierre Ekwah still sidelined and Corry Evans having seemingly vanished into a vast cosmic void from which there is no return, Mowbray has had to be cunning with his midfield selections in recent weeks. Pritchard has provided an adequate interim remedy, but without him, Sunderland were once again forced to improvise. Then again, if there is a club as achingly familiar with the process of cramming square pegs into round holes, then the Black Cats - who concluded last season with no strikers, no centre-backs, and no logical justification as to how they still managed to finish in the play-off places - are yet to encounter them.

Sunderland manager Tony Mowbray. The Black Cats boss could be forced to play Patrick Roberts in the centre of midfield against Middlesbrough at the weekend. Sunderland manager Tony Mowbray. The Black Cats boss could be forced to play Patrick Roberts in the centre of midfield against Middlesbrough at the weekend.
Sunderland manager Tony Mowbray. The Black Cats boss could be forced to play Patrick Roberts in the centre of midfield against Middlesbrough at the weekend. | Getty Images

On Wednesday night against Watford, Patrick Roberts was the man parachuted in to replace Pritchard, shunted centrally from the right flank like a pile of casino chips on the green felt of a roulette table. The gamble paid off. Not only did Sunderland stroll out 2-0 winners to prolong a hugely promising start to the new campaign, but Roberts looked admirably unflustered in an interior role. His pass completion rate of 87% was, according to Wyscout, his second-highest of the season so far, and his dribble success rate of 75% was the best he’s recorded since a brief cameo against West Brom all the way back in April.

But in the immortal words of Brian Butterfield, ‘That’s still not all’. Roberts won 10 out of his 14 offensive duels, his most impressive ratio since February, and in a defensive sense, he was successful in six out of his six contests - a faultless return. Sprinkle in a dash of the freedom that was afforded to Abdoulah Ba out on the right flank, and all in all, the number 10’s conversion to, well, a number 10 was a wholesale triumph.

Which brings us to this weekend, and Saturday lunchtime to be more specific. Sunderland will host Middlesbrough in the first Tees-Wear Derby of the campaign (or The Battle for the OK Diner as it should rightfully be known) and the likelihood is that Pritchard will be touch and go with regards to his availability. As such, Roberts could well get the nod again, and if he does, his performance may be pivotal to the Black Cats’ hopes of victory.

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Boro tend to attack through central areas, and they have a proclivity for playing on the counter. With that in mind, whoever is operating in the middle for Mowbray’s side - and it could well be Roberts alongside both Dan Neil and Jobe Bellingham - will have to be willing to graft and apply themselves when heading in the direction of their own goal too. Of course, Wednesday proved that Roberts can do that, but despite their relatively lowly league standing, Michael Carrick’s men could provide a much sterner test than the Hornets did.

For one thing, Saturday is a derby (of sorts) and anybody with even the most casual of interests in football will tell you that anything can happen when local rivals meet. For another, Boro are currently on a run of four successive wins across all competitions, and look to have really turned a corner after a nightmarish start to the new campaign. They will not simply roll over at the Stadium of Light.

And that applies to their own defensive duties too. So many teams arrive on Wearside with the intention of lying deep and stifling their hosts. It’s an approach that has, on occasion, been very effective. In those moments of frustration, however, we have seen time and time again that Sunderland turn to their wide men, Roberts and Jack Clarke, to fulfil the role of enchanted skeleton keys - prising open the resolves of stubborn backlines with a copious dusting of magic. Depending on Saturday pans out, that could be the case again, even if the hill from which Roberts launches his attacks is a slightly different one.

In other words, if the Black Cats are to take anything from their weekend exploits, they will have to be at their very best all across the pitch, but Roberts, occupying an unfamiliar role of such significance, may prove to be more a decisive presence than most.

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