Good Lord. It's never dull supporting Sunderland, is it? Still riding the crest of a Martin O'Neill-shaped wave, the Black Cats secured their third late late late victory in as many weeks, when league leaders Manchester City came to town yesterday. 1-0 it ended, with Ji Dong-Won scoring the only goal when just four seconds remained on the clock. Marvellous.
Sunderland lined up in a very makeshift manner. In came Simon Mignolet in goal, protective facemask included, to replace the injured Kieren Westwood. The four in front of him contained tqo midfielders as full-backs in the forms of Jack Colback and Craig Gardner, while Manchester United old boys Wes Brown and John O'Shea took up the unenviable task of stopping City's wealth of attacking options from scoring. Brown himself would leave injured after less than half an hour, so it was Matt Kilgallon (...who?) who played much of the game.
James McClean was given his first start on the left wing, with Seb Larsson taking up residence on the right. At least that was the case when going forward with the ball, but since Sunderland spent the vast majority out of possession, for the most part their midfield had five members, with Stephane Sessegnon dropping back to a wider role and Larsson tucking in alongside David Vaughan and Lee Cattermole. Nicklas Bendtner led the line up front.Nullifying The Threat
Unless you've been living under a rock for a few years, or you're a thick idiot, you'll probably be aware that Manchester City have some pretty good players. Nay, some very good ones. Martin O'Neill and Sunderland were well aware of this, and thus presented with the difficult issue of stopping them scoring a hatful.
One of the things O'Neill decided to do was to focus relentlessly on his side's shape. There were times in the second half when he was visibly remonstrating with a player who had drifted out of position, imploring them to get themselves back to where they should be, as opposed to breaking forward and pressuring the visitors.
There were occasions when the home side pressed for mistakes, with Lee Cattermole particularly prominent in such efforts, but for the most part Sunderland were happy to let Roberto Mancini's men pass the ball about at will in their own half and around the halfway line. The Black Cats were much more focused upon getting their shape right, ready to deal with the next wave of attack that was inevitably coming.
It had to be this way if they were to get anything from this game. Almost immediately after the game kicked off, Cattermole broke from his position to pressure the man on the ball. This was commended by fans, but such was the class of the City players that they simply passed around him, and Yaya Toure was able to gain possession in the space Cattermole had vacated. Toure's surging run caused the home side problems and resulted in a very early corner for City; it was clear that a high pressure approach from Sunderland was unlikely to work (nor would they be able to keep such an approach up for ninety minutes).
Of course, this all meant that City enjoyed staggering amounts of possession. One statistic read that they enjoyed 75% of the ball in the second half, while they attempted a scarcely believable 725 passes - in comparison to Sunderland's 348. What's more, they completed 605 of those, though it is telling that they only once found themselves with a particularly clear-cut chance, which Mignolet saved well. They did of course strike the woodwork twice, but one of these came from a corner, whilst the other was the result of a rebound after Mignolet had parried David Silva's long range effort.
With Sunderland fielding a makeshift side, there were undoubtedly weak links that Mancini was hoping his side could exploit. The most obvious one his side sought to prey upon was Jack Colback, positioned at left-back.
In the opening half hour or so, City targeted Sunderland's left side visibly. Adam Johnson was given permission to toy with his opposite number, seeking to take him on at every opportunity. Furthermore, the roaming Yaya Toure, though more central, would often drift over to that side of the field, thus heightening the pressure upon and workload of Colback.
Fortunately for him, and his side, he was excellent yesterday. With five out of seven tackles successful, and three interceptions, the young Englishman proved himself a more than worthy left-back - to the point that Johnson eventually switched wings with Samir Nasri to try find more joy against Craig Gardner.
Having endured a few months of vilification, Sunderland captain Lee Cattermole seems truly revitalised under new manager O'Neill. On Sunday, he gave a man-of-the-match performance (as reflected in our own post-match report). Tireless in his running, but remarkably composed in the tackle and disciplined positionally, the captain led by example, and was at the forefront of an excellent defensive performance.
Yaya Toure initially found gaps between the central midfield and defence, but Cattermole (and, in fairness, Vaughan and Larsson) tightened up and restricted the room afforded to their opponents. They still enjoyed a wealth of possession, but they were unable to consistently find a way through a staunch rearguard outfit.
Mass credit must be afforded to the back four too, however. In comparison to the paltry 12 attempted clearances by the visitors, Sunderland attempted 49 - and were successful in 27.
Even had this remained 0-0 until the end, this was a fascinating game of football. For all their possession and talent, City struggled to get themselves into a one-on-one opportunity. Sunderland, meanwhile, played almost exclusively on the counter-attack, and actually found themselves presented with the game's three best chances.
City will bemoan their ill luck, but the truth is that they were unable to consistently test goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. Sunderland looked more assured when defending set-pieces and, even when they inevitably tired (the last ten minutes saw City camped in the Sunderland half), they refused to relinquish their shape and determination.
In the end, the side that wanted it more won. With another attack having being foiled, the City players were lethargic in their attempts to get back, so Martin O'Neill instructed his men to go for the win. That they did, and through a superbly composed finish from Ji, they came away with all three points.