By now followers of Sunderland Ladies should be aware of the ongoing debate among the fans, is Carlton Fairweather still the right man to lead us into a third successive WSL 1 season?
He impressed with the team in his earlier days, seeing us rise from WSL 2 under his management and have a phenomenal start to our first season in WSL 1, but following the mid season break for the world cup in that season everything seems to have gone wrong. We haven’t won a league game since last July with a pretty similar team, something many fans seem to blame him for.
Obviously loss of key players is a big factor in the weakening of our team, for example Sarah McFadden to Durham, Sophie Williams to Newcastle and the retirements of Vicky Greenwell and Gemma Wilson. However we cannot overlook the fact that we failed to add replacement players to our squad – obviously we brought in 4 players in the preseason transfer window however two of them suffered season ending injuries in the first few weeks of the 2016 season, and one has since left us to go to Everton for reasons that have not been revealed. This has led to severe lack of depth within our squad and a very depleted defense.
As a club Carlton and the rest of the staff had the chance to right this during the summer break in which there was a month long transfer window. During this transfer window we made no signings, despite being one of the few teams in the league whom for which this was absolutely crucial to avoid relegation. This was once a question of if we could afford players, but sunderland have enough money to buy players, and therefore questions must be asked on why we are not signing people. An addition of defenders could have helped secure our 3rd season in the WSL 1, even just short term loans while players are injured, but we are left in the same insecure position as before. We seemed to have targets for transfers, as from multiple sources we had heard ex-Birmingham players Jade Moore and Jo Potter trained with us, but these fell through as they chose a move to Notts County instead and left us with nothing. The long month was drawing to a close and we had failed to draw in players despite the club working hard to get some, this left us searching for deals on deadline day, none of which came to fortune, presumably for a lack of time to complete the deals. This is the main factor that has raised questions among fans on Carlton’s place within our managerial structure.
Many fans have also expressed concerns over the tactics that he chooses to use in our games. It is essential in modern football that tactics are flexible and change based on who your team is facing, however we are not able to do this and do the same things week in week out. One of these that has been increasingly clear in recent games is getting the ball forward to Beth Mead. Mead, who plays upfront as our lone striker, is the target of all our possession. However, we have been unable to make simple passes in midfield and instead resort to just hitting it as far forward as possible in the hopes that she can make the run for it, which is very difficult after she was the leading top scorer last season and is therefore very heavily marked this season. The few goals we have got this season have mainly come from players other than Mead where we have been able to get passes going and to a player not marked for example Brooke Chaplen – who is our top scorer this season with 5 goals, or Steph Roche who has a good shot when she can find space. Our lack of goals has also worried fans as it has seemed to be the result of trying to walk the ball into the goal, we seem to need the ball in the box before we shoot which in unrealistic and players need to be encouraged to take a shot from further out. A player this would suit is Roche, as she has such a good eye for goal proven in her goal which saw her come as the runner-up for the Puskas award in 2014. However, it seems other players are encouraged to get the ball to Mead if possible, and if not only then take their own shot. Obviously Mead is a phenomenal player and an asset to our team however the old tactic no longer works in such a demanding league.
Our predictable tactics have raised many questions as during the least game before the mid season break it was tweeted by @ChelseaLFC ‘Just as Emma Hayes predicted, Sunderland looking to hit Beth Mead early at every opportunity #CLFC’ which proves how predictable we are as a team, meaning other teams have the advantage going into the games. They can change to deal with our tactics while we stay the same and inevitably are out played.
Another tactic we have which seems to make no sense to many fans is the changing of at least one winger at half time. In most matches we see a winger subbed off at half time, despite how they are performing. Many times we see a player performing well in the first half, only to be taken off at the 45 minute mark. This creates an unbalance in the team for no apparent reason. In the 5-0 loss against chelsea one of our best players had been Roche, who was then taken off at half time for Kiera Ramshaw. Ramshaw or Abbey Joice often seem to be the player brought on for the winger who goes off, and though in some situations they can make a difference and change how we play with their pace and ability to get forward, it is often too late and we are already losing or low in confidence. Clearly there are some situations in which a half time substitution is necessary – for example if a player is injured or if a player is tired – however this rarely seems to be the case, or it would be unlikely that this was the case every game. We also seem to play people despite bad form. Obviously in a shallow squad it is difficult to be able to remove players and play someone in better form, especially in our defense, but it leads to even more errors. Captain Steph Bannon played poor games before the break against Liverpool and after it against Arsenal, scoring 3 own goals total. In other teams the player would be able to be replaced in order to keep a strong team while helping regain her form, however we are unable to do such a thing as we have so few players available.
Another thing that seems to worry fans is playing our squad in a formation that doesn’t work with players out of position. As mentioned above we have wingers that come on at half time, who could be a starter if other players were played in their right positions. Roche is a forward in every sense, a pacy player and a goalscorer which is obvious when you see her play internationally for Republic of Ireland, but we instead choose to play 4-5-1 with mead up front alone and Roche on the wing. While in this season she has improved on the wing last season she under performed there, which shows it is not her natural position. Many fans believe that she should be played up front with Mead in a 4-4-2 formation, with Joice, Ramshaw or Kelly on the wings, and Furness, Chaplen or Staniforth in the middle. If Roche was played in her natural position upfront it gives us extra chances at goals as we have the extra striker available, as well as taking some of the pressure off Mead who would then be able to get more time on the ball in order to get the goals we crave from her.
Arsene Wenger once said “like a flower” – “You have to take care of it and look after it every day, or else it will slowly die. But as well, you can make the flower bigger, better and prettier if you care for it”. This seems to be exactly the opposite of what is happening with our club this season – as we fail to enhance our tactics and expand or improve our squad but rather deal with what we have and hope for the best. Carlton seems to be stubborn in his tactics, which fans see as a failing in his managerial role. We need to be able to change and evolve in order to progress as a team.