Sunderland welcomed local rivals Middlesbrough to the Stadium of Light on Sunday for an enchanting FA Cup fourth round tie. Though fairly low on quality, the encounter was entertaining, with the 1-1 scoreline probably a fair reflection on how each side turned out. Martin O'Neill's men must now venture down to the Riverside Stadium a week on Tuesday, a trip which will see them play their fourth game in just nine days.
O'Neill was no doubt looking to avoid such a hectic schedule and thus sent out his strongest available side in the hope of avoiding any chance of a replay. With captain and ex-'boro midfielder Lee Cattermole ruled out with a hamstring injury, Craig Gardner came into the starting line-up alongside David Vaughan in central midfield. The only other change for the Black Cats was also enforced - Nicklas Bendtner's injury, picked up against Swansea last weekend, saw Connor Wickham given a starting berth up front with Stephane Sessegnon.
The omission of Cattermole saw Sunderland employ a rather more rigid formation than in recent weeks. Cattermole usually lies deeper than his partner, Vaughan, primarily protecting the back four. The inclusion of the more attack-minded Gardner saw this facet of Sunderland's game abandoned, thus opening up space for the visitors to try and exploit. Furthermore, Stephane Sessegnon's freer role up front once again saw him roam between striker and attacking midfielder - he seemed to move further away from Wickham (and then Wickham's replacement, the returning Fraizer Campbell) as the game progressed.
Tony Mowbray's Middlesbrough side have started 2012 poorly - they are yet to win since the turn of the year - but still posed an undeniable threat. Though often opting for a 3-5-2 formation this season, Mowbray sought to outfox his opposite number by reverting to a more orthodox 4-4-2. Lukas Jutkiewicz, a recent £1.3m arrival from Coventry City, was given his first start up front alongside Marvin Emnes; Faris Haroun and Scott McDonald flanked central midfielders Barry Robson and Rhys Williams; while a back four of Tony McMahon, Matthew Bates, Seb Hines and ex-Sunderland loanee Justin Hoyte protected goalkeeper Danny Coyne.
This game saw an interesting change from Sunderland's recent games. Where, since O'Neill's arrival, Sunderland have looked to soak up pressure and defend fairly deep, leaving themselves vast quantities of room to counter-attack into, this game saw the roles reversed. This time it was the visitors who employed this kind of approach and, for stages in the first half, it worked extremely well.
It is a sign of the differing approach of the visitors that this was only the third time since O'Neill took charge that Sunderland have had the better of possession (with 53% to Middlesbrough's 47%). Indeed, since the departure of Steve Bruce, the red and whites have averaged just 42.3% per game.
There were often times in the game where Sunderland found themselves with nine or ten Middlesbrough players in between them and the goal. This is not to say that the visitors were particularly negative or defensive - they weren't - they simply sought to beat the Wearsiders at their own game.
In the opening half, it worked effectively. Though Barry Robson's stunning strike came from a cacophony of John O'Shea mistakes (one misplaced pass out, followed by two unconvincing headed clearances), the rest of the Teesiders' efforts came from breakaway moves that opened up the home side - who were pushing higher and further forward looking to find an equaliser.
The most notable of these was Jutkiewicz's effort that should have made it 2-0. With Kieran Richardson giving the ball away on the halfway line, the visitors sought to take full advantage of the error, counter-attacking with pace. Haroun played in Jutkiewicz, who exploited a huge gap in the Sunderland back line (formed via a mixture of laziness and the side seeking to get forward) to sting the hands of Mignolet. Haroun was then first to the rebound - overlapping Wes Brown, who had switched off - misfiring his shot into the path of Jutkiewicz once more, who then, somehow, screwed the ball wide when it was easier to score.
This was a huge let off for Sunderland, and they ensured a repeat wasn't forthcoming.
As the first half wore on, the home side began to exert their authority on the game. They did, however, struggle to get to the byline - Mowbray, again echoing O'Neill's tactics, ensured his full-backs and wingers employed the "doubling-up" tactic when defending.
The visitors entered the break much the happier, and Sunderland knew something had to change if they were to progress any further in this year's FA Cup.
With that in mind, O'Neill saw fit to bring Fraizer Campbell - out injured for the best part of the past seventeen months - on for Wickham. Wickham, though winning a number of headers early on, generally looked poor. His first touch was adept at ensuring his second was a tackle, he struggled to impose himself on Middlesbrough's excellent Matthew Bates, and looked to be carrying a knock.
With Campbell's entry came an increase in Sunderland's tempo. Knowing that it was now down to them to take the game to the visitors, the red and whites looked to attack with pace. In the first half, looking unsure as to how to truly control the game, much of their build-up play was monotonous, allowing Mowbray's side to get into position and defend with relative ease (indeed, for Sunderland in the first 45 minutes yesterday, see Swansea City last week at the Stadium of Light).
The main outlet for this was James McClean. On the opposite wing, Seb Larsson had an ineffective game - Justin Hoyte played well, forcing the Swede inside on every occasion and nullifying the chances of him sending over crosses.
As a result of this and the lack of any real connection yesterday between the central midfield and the two men ahead of them, it was left to McClean to retrieve the game for the home side.
His way of doing this was simple, but effective. Driving to the line at every opportunity and seeking to get the ball across whenever a fellow Sunderland man entered the box in the middle, McClean was a constant thorn in right-back Tony McMahon's side (though, in fairness to McMahon, he played well and made it an intriguing battle).
Inevitably, it was from McClean that the equalising goal stemmed. In a move not in keeping with the rest of the game - but well in keeping with the Sunderland of recent weeks - it came from a Black Cats counter-attack.
A Middlesbrough corner came to nought, and Barry Robson's torrid attempted backpass found its way to the feet of the anticipating McClean, who immediately drove directly forward. Drawing lone defender Hoyte towards him, the young Irishman waited until just the right moment before laying off a perfectly weighted pass to the onrushing Campbell - who promptly finished in style. It was a goal that perfectly reflected the Black Cats' new style of play.
Following the goal, the home side briefly looked like overrunning their opponents - but Mowbray's men weathered the storm. The odd chance came and went, though none really threatened either Coyne or his replacement Connor Ripley in the Middlesbrough goal, and the game ended fairly as a draw.
This was a fairly straightforward game tactically. Middlesbrough, upon taking the lead through a wonder goal, invited Sunderland to come and break them down. For the most part the home side failed, but they did summon up enough resolve, and were the better side in the second half.
Middlesbrough came with a gameplan and stuck to it well. They were cautious in vacating their designated positions, with Robson and Williams in the middle being particular standout performers alongside right-back McMahon.
As for Sunderland, this was a disappointing performance. The midfield sorely missed the ball-winning Cattermole - the Vaughan and Gardner partnership does not, as yet, look suited to one another. Things did improve in the second half, where Vaughan stayed deeper allowing Gardner to push forward, but for the most part they were well controlled by their opposite numbers.
Larsson had a poor game, as stated, while full-backs Bardsley and Richardson offered little. They had minimal amounts to do defensively, such were the tactics of the visitors, yet their attacking contribution was almost nought.
The only real standout performer for the Black Cats was the adventurous McClean. His direct nature terrifies opposing defences and, on another day, he may well have won the game for his side.
Also positive for Sunderland was the return of Fraizer Campbell. His introduction injected some much-needed life and pace into the side in the second-half. Though its appearance was rather sparing, his partnership with Sessegnon showed early signs of life. Those two, combined with the energy of McClean, could make for an exciting frontline in weeks to come.