With the party with Marty in full swing following last week's win at Stoke, Sunderland set off for Teeside for the third FA Cup game of the season. Yes, three. Martin O'Neill has been here barely a couple of months and he has already given us three whole year's worth of FA Cup games. What a guy.
And, for the third FA Cup game in a row O'Neill named a very strong side and underlined how seriously he took the competition. David Meyler could count himself unlucky to be back on the bench following a courageous and strong performance at the Britannia Stadium, but few could begrudge a return to the side for Fraizer Campbell. That meant a return to a pretty standard 4-4-2 system.
Middlesbrough mirrored the Sunderland system with former Stadium of Light favourite Julio Arca providing the balance on the left side of midfield. There was a first start up front for Curtis Main – a man who sounds more like a Metro Station than a footballer – with Kevin Thomson coming into midfield.
The Little Midfield General
With the teams lining up like for like in terms of tactics, the question became one of who was going to win their own individual battles on the pitch. Both Sunderland central midfield players were very good on the day, but while Craig Gardner was dynamic, Jack Colback was downright authoritative.
The Championship opposition must be taken into account, but Colback's performance was mature beyond his years. He took the sting out of the game when his team needed to and he drove the team forward where possible.
With Rhys Williams almost exclusively preoccupied with Stephane Sessegnon ("that's called the tactics of football" © Tony Mowbray), Craig Gardner was able to run Kevin Thomson away and create a lot of midfield space for the deeper Colback. Allowed to get his foot on the ball and head up at his leisure, he assumed the role of the great midfield conductor.
Colback showed a level of maturity well beyond his years, however, and the intelligence of his movement for his goal was almost as impressive as his finish. Seeing Sessegnon, who was relentlessly shadowed throughout but to little real effect, drag a red shirt out of position, Colback quickly saw the opportunity to get forward into the space vacated by the Middlesborough player. It was the kind of intuitive and opportunistic gamble which is the hallmark of top midfield players and provides real evidence of Colback's development.
The Totally Inexplicable Yet Magnificent Marauding Michael Turner
Lets be honest. None of us – not a single one – ever thought we'd see Michael Turner stride ahead of the ball to make an extra man in attack like some inspirational German sweeper on acid. Astonishingly he did it three times during the course of the game, and ended up with attempts at goal from two of them. Incredible.
Initially I thought he had just seen an opportunity and decided to go for it. Then he did it again in the second half and I started to wonder to myself if it was actually a tactical instruction? After all, if O'Neill specifically didn't want his lumbering battering ram of a centre half waltzing around the pitch willy-nilly he'd have surely told him so at half time. Before I knew it he was off again, though.
Definitely one to keep an eye on in upcoming weeks!
Shared Blame On 'Boro Leveller
OK, so when Michael Turner wasn't charging down the pitch like a middle-order slogger who has spotted a googly, his job is to defend and win headers and stuff, and we can all be in agreement that he didn't do that especially well at all for Jutkiewicz's equalizer. The former Hull City man horribly misjudged the flight of Curtis Main's header and found himself stranded underneath the ball, flat-footed, and unable to recover.
But whilst I think we can all agree he was at fault for the goal, he shouldn't take all of the blame. Kieran Richardson has been one of the players of the season for my money so far but he absolutely hung out his centre half to dry here.
With play developing on Richardson's side of the pitch, he found himself attracted to the play anticipating a shorter pass than the one that landed on Main's head. Rather than retreat to his defensive line he was then caught ball watching and never got himself into a position to cover his centre back. Jutkiewicz was able to measure his strike to the very last inch at his own leisure before firing home, which was completely unacceptable given the central position in which he found himself.
Not a great deal to conclude from the game really. Boro had a go and made it tough, but never had the quality to go with their endeavour. Without the gift from Richardson and Turner it was difficult to see themreally carving out chances and Martin O'Neill will be disappointed this one went to extra time. Still, the FA Cup is all about keeping yourself in the hat. How you do it is largely immaterial.
I have just basically called into the question the relevance of this entire article with that last sentence, haven't I? Curses.