The Sunderland AFC Bandwagon, sponsored by Martin O'Neill, rolled into Wigan last night, and left a few hours later with yet more added momentum. 4-1 it ended, with the visitors fairly rampant by the end, and a home side that had started out on top looking suitably crushed.
The result was made even more impressive by O'Neill being forced into yet another reshuffle of his side. Wes Brown's inability to recover from the knock he picked up on Sunday against Manchester City meant his replacement Matthew Kilgallon started a game in red and white for the first time in a very long time, while Seb Larsson's injury saw him replaced by Kieran Richardson.
As a result, the Black Cats began with a fairly versatile 4-5-1 formation. Stephane Sessegnon took up position on the right side of midfield, with Kieran Richardson slotting in alongside David Vaughan in the centre, and Lee Cattermole occupying a deep-lying role in front of centre-backs Kilgallon and John O'Shea.Wigan On Top
Craig Gardner's stupendous injury time free-kick was all that separated the two sides heading into the half-time break, and Wigan could feel somewhat aggrieved to be trailing. Roberto Martinez's side had looked much more likely than the Wearsiders to score in the first forty-five minutes, having struck the woodwork twice and tested goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
In contrast to Manchester City, who targeted Sunderland's left-side on Sunday, Wigan chose to focus much of their play - especially in the first half - upon right-back Craig Gardner. This was not done because they saw Gardner as weak at right full-back, he isn't, but instead because the man in front of him, Stephane Sessegnon, was perceived by Roberto Martinez as being less likely to contribute defensively. With a key aspect of Martin O'Neill's recent tactics been to rely upon a "doubling up" of full-back and winger when defending, Wigan thought that Sessegnon would perhaps focus too much upon attacking instead.
At times, they were right. David Jones was especially busy on the Wigan left-wing, and found himself on more than one occasion going close with an effort on goal. Albert Crusat, too, focused much of his play down that left side, prior to hobbling off before the break.
However, far from shirking his defensive responsibilities, Sessegnon actually put in a surprisingly resolute display. He actually put in a hefty 11 tackles last night, and was successful in 8 of them. This is underlined by how Wigan left-back Maynor Figueroa struggled to get into attacking positions throughout the game. It is noteworthy, too, that Sunderland's second most tackles at the DW Stadium yesterday evening came from left-winger James McClean; it is clear that, for Martin O'Neill, wingers are an integral and vital part of the defensive effort.
Wigan's good play in the opening half can perhaps be put down to their own merits, then. For a side at the bottom end of the table they play fluent football - they simply lack a real end product. Sunderland's new preference for sitting back and soaking up pressure before hitting with fast counter-attacks was again on show last night, and they can count themselves a tad lucky that they didn't concede in the opening half.
The importance of Sunderland's wingers when the side is defending has already been underlined, but they were of equal importance when the side attacked at Wigan too.
James McClean and Stephane Sessegnon were arguably Sunderland's best players - and with good reason. Both offered a distinct counter-attacking threat, with one complementing the other perfectly. McClean, like some sort of 'Gareth Bale-lite' winger, was extremely direct and forceful in his drives forward, seeking to take men on at every opportunity. Sessegnon, on the other hand, was more likely to stray away from the touchline and drift infield to offer support to either Nicklas Bendtner or a breaking midfielder. Both were rewarded by getting on the scoresheet.
Such wing play was of course complemented by the men playing inside them. David Vaughan and Kieran Richardson were both impressive, but once again it was the resurgent Lee Cattermole who came out of the game with increasing praise.
The Sunderland captain, deployed in a deeper role, marshalled the area around the 18-yard-box excellently, refusing to dive into tackles, holding men up with great patience, and nicking the ball at just the right time. Furthermore, when in possession, he was rarely wasteful. Cattermole succeeded with 83% of his passes at the DW, and most of these were sent wide to the breaking wingers.
And Nicklas Bendtner, He's Rubbish, Right?
Well, no. Despite the team's recent rejuvenation, Bendtner has attracted criticism from many Sunderland fans. His demeanour is one that frustrates, as he often gives off an air of laziness not in keeping with the rest of the side.
Yet, Bendtner continues to do an important job for the side. On Tuesday evening he was actually the man who attempted the most passes out of anyone in the Sunderland team - more than any of the individual midfielders behind him.
Two things may be drawn from this. First, it reflects the emphasis on counter-attacking that the Sunderland side now deploys. With their sole striker being the man responsible for the most attempted passes, it becomes clear that the Black Cats are extremely direct when attacking, choosing to get the ball to Bendtner, who in turn lays off to breaking midfield players. The most pertinent example of this came with the side's third goal when Bendtner received an exquisite pass from David Meyler out wide, crossing for the surging Stephane Sessegnon to slide the ball home.
Second, it suggests Bendtner is much more involved that many observers currently give him credit for. A common complaint is that the Dane spends too much time out wide, though it must be said that people only complain about this when moves break down. I myself have been a regular critic of Bendtner, but last night's display from him was actually rather selfless. His high level of involvement was very much reflective of a performance for the team, as opposed to the individuality he is often criticised for. That he made the most attempted passes but came in third in the successful passing ranks - behind Vaughan and Colback - is to be expected; as a lone striker, he is much more likely to find himself isolated on occasion, thus it is acceptable for the odd pass to go astray. With that said, he only completed four less passes (31) than the side's most successful passer last night, Vaughan.
These are strange times for Sunderland fans watching their team. The red and whites are more than happy to allow their opponents a wealth of possession, yet their performance on Tuesday was far from negative too.
Wigan led the shots tally with 23, as opposed to Sunderland's 11, but managed just 5 on target - less than their victorious opponents. True, the visitors were fortunate, especially when the home side hit the woodwork twice in a matter of seconds, but for the most part Sunderland are looking altogether more assured both in defence and attack.
Defensively, the sit has much more shape to it. John O'Shea seems much better suited at centre-back, where he can focus on clearing up any danger, as opposed to potentially starting off attacking moves. This responsibility instead falls to Colback and Gardner. Placing those two at full-back seems a smarter move with each passing game. Both are fairly tough-tackling midfielders, thus their defensive skills can easily be transferred to the full-back positions. Furthermore, they are also much more likely to pass their way out from the back, and therefore start off those counter-attacking moves.
Wigan, like Manchester City on Sunday, attempted and completed far more passes than Sunderland. However, their possession came in areas that the Black Cats were happy for them to be. Sunderland displayed great patience without the ball, knowing they would be rewarded by their quick counter-attacking abilities.