Sunderland bounced back from their devastating midweek FA Cup loss by putting in a hugely impressive performance away at long time league leaders Manchester City on Saturday. The Black Cats were left disappointed, as two late goals saw the home side salvage an undeserved 3-3 draw. In spite of the late setback, though, Martin O'Neill's men could take pride from being the first team to leave the Etihad this season with anything other than a loss.
The Wearsiders lined up in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Simon Mignolet's goal was protected by a back four of Jack Colback, Matthew Kilgallon, Michael Turner and Phil Bardsley. James McClean and Seb Larsson flanked captain Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner in midfield, while Stephane Sessegnon acted as the adventurous foil to Nicklas Bendtner's hold-up striking role.
The extraordinarily rich home side could also be said to have fielded a 4-4-1-1 - but in the loosest sense. Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli, David Silva, James Milner and Yaya Toure made up an extremely advanced and interchangeable front five - Balotelli mostly led the line with Dzeko dropping deeper in behind, while the other three took it in turns to get forward and try pick holes in the visiting defence. Supplementing them was a defensive midfielder in the guise of Nigel De Jong, who protected a back four of Aleksandar Kolarov, Vincent Kompany, Kolo Toure and Micah Richards. England international Joe Hart lined up in goal.
Fluid Play Broken Up
Much of City's good work this season has came from their fluidity when attacking - the interchangeable nature of their front players has caused nightmares for opposition defences, with supremely talented individuals given free reign to cause as much mayhem as possible.
However, in recent weeks, due to a mixture between a dip in the form of Roberto Mancini's side and opposition teams better adapting to the threats posed to them, such fluidity has been much less evident. And so it proved on Saturday.
Aside from ten minutes before half time and ten before full time, City were poor in this match. Sunderland dealt with attacks with a relative ease, and looked more threatening themselves when they sought to get forward.
Vast credit must go to Lee Cattermole. The captain led by example, contributing a game-high of six tackles, and he nullified the significant threat from Yaya Toure. The man from the Ivory Coast touched the ball no fewer than 100 times - more than anyone else on the pitch - but it is notable that he did little in the way of creating goalscoring chances. Toure was successful in just one of his five attempted through balls, and offered just a solitary key pass.
Another key performer for the Black Cats was the excellent Jack Colback, deployed at left-back by Martin O'Neill, just as he was when the two sides met on New Years Day. Colback contributed three tackles, two interceptions, two blocks and seven out of eight successful clearances. He dealt with James Milner ably, while any time David Silva ventured to the right he saw no joy whatsoever. It is telling (and indicative of Colback's great work) that these men made up two of City's three substitutions.
For the most part, City's attacks resembled a disjointed mess. Sunderland plugged gaps relentlessly, and restricted their opponents to long-range efforts for much of this game.
Final Ten Changes It
Many Sunderland fans pointed to the departure from the field of Matthew Kilgallon as the reason behind their side relinquishing its lead in the final ten minutes. To some extent this is true, but City's revival was as much down to a substitution of their own.
Mancini's decision to replace Milner with David Pizarro was inspired. The Chilean loanee was flawless once he came on; 100% pass success rate (12 out of 12), one accurate cross and two key passes in such a short time on the field. His impeccable display helped his side ratchet up the pressure on the tiring red and whites, and though the goals themselves could be seen as fortuitous, they came from lax defending that could be said to have directly came from that pressure.
The loss of Kilgallon did affect Sunderland however. He and Michael Turner had an outstanding game together - the latter actually went the entire match without misplacing a pass, something which will no doubt stagger those who feel his distribution is scarcely average at best.
Kilgallon, despite having been out of the side for almost three months, marshalled the defence magnificently, giving neither Mario Balotelli nor Edin Dzeko a sniff. It is wrong to blame his replacement - Sotirios Kyrgiakos - for the two late goals, but the side notably went more slack as they tired.
A valiant attempt from the Black Cats, and one that so very nearly ended in victory. O'Neill will be disappointed with the manner of the two late goals, with both deriving from poor defending - though Sunderland can take great heart from this performance.
City, for the most part, were made to look distinctly average. It took a disputable penalty to get them on terms in the first half, while only the introduction of the excellent Pizarro saved their blushes late on.
Sunderland once again proved themselves capable of out-thinking and outperforming any side in the league on their day. They will now welcome Tottenham to the Stadium of Light on Saturday with little to fear.