Sunderland's pre-season got off and running nice and early this morning, with the inaugural game of the 2012 Peace Cup. Pitted against South Korean side Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in a hot and humid Suwon, Martin O'Neill's men were given a good test against a team right in the midst of their own domestic season.
Ultimately, a solitary goal from Everton Santos - outlined in our preview as Seongnam's star man - was enough to separate the sides. Sunderland will be disappointed with the result, but it was a good first runout for O'Neill's men, from which a few positives can be taken.
With his squad depleted due to a number of high profile absences, O'Neill was forced to opt for a starting eleven that is unlikely to remain the same come August 18th at The Emirates. There was, however, a hint of his preferred formation for this coming season, as he opened with a 4-3-3 system.
This was spearheaded by Connor Wickham at centre-forward, who found himself flanked by Fraizer Campbell and Kieran Richardson. Campbell took up residence as an advanced right-winger, with Richardson mirroring him on the left. Though James McClean is sure to line up there when the season starts properly, one wonders if O'Neill may now seek to utilise Richardson as a right-sided attacking player, or perhaps have him and McClean swap at varying intervals. His inclusion here suggests the manager thinks Richardson still has a role to play at Sunderland, so perhaps playing him further forward is the gaffer's attempt to placate his supposedly unhappy player.
Further back, Craig Gardner, David Meyler and captain Lee Cattermole comprised a midfield three. Cattermole was deployed deeper, expected to clear up any Seongnam attacks through the midfield then redistribute the ball to the two more creative central midfielders.
In defence, Michael Turner and Titus Bramble started in the centre, with Jack Colback and Wes Brown at left and right full-back respectively. With the signing of Carlos Cuellar and the imminent return of John O'Shea to the fold, many had wondered where Wes Brown might fit in - perhaps Cuellar will now line up at centre back, with Brown replacing Phil Bardsley at full-back. Simon Mignolet, as expected, was chosen in goal.
For much the of the game's opening phase, Sunderland were without the ball, and appearing instead to be playing in a 4-5-1. Fraizer Campbell was the chief culprit, with sloppy touches and errant passes gifting the ball to the Koreans twice in the first five minutes.
The visitors nearly paid for their poor ball retention after just six minutes. A corner came over from the right and, with Titus Bramble napping, Lim Jong-Eun nodded wide when he really should have hit the target. Bramble's lackadaisical marking would become a common feature as the game wore on.
Slowly, Sunderland settled. David Meyler was fouled as the Black Cats looked to make their first real inroads - resulting in a booking for Park Se-Young - and the men in red and white soon found themselves common occupants of the Seongnam half. Kieran Richardson headed wide from a corner, and it seemed the visitors were about to exert their dominance.
Seongnam, though, are not one of South Korea's most successful sides for nothing. They looked assured on the ball, full of running and (understandly) more capable of coping with the humidity than their counterparts.
It was Éverton Santos, the Brazilian, who looked the most lively. Around the twenty minute mark he burst forward and attempted to play a neat one-two into the Sunderland area - but his team-mate's pass eluded him and Colback was on hand to clear up.
Just nine minutes later, it worked. This time he exchanged passes with fellow foreign player Javier Reina Calvo, bursting into the box and slotting home beneath Simon Mignolet. The Columbian Calvo played a delicate backheel having been afforded too much room by Colback and Santos, outwitting a flat-footed Titus Bramble, burst through and never looked like missing. It was a slick goal from Shin Tae-Yong's side, but Colback's poor marking and Bramble's awful concentration were causes for concern for Sunderland.
A few moments later, it could have been two. Santos again found himself in space, and only a dive at his feet by Mignolet stopped the Koreans doubling their advantage.
For all their defensive troubles, Sunderland still looked dangerous when they chose to attack. Again, it was Kieran Richardson who had their best chances. First he latched onto a clipped through ball by David Meyler, only to fire his volley well over. Then he was played in following some wonderful play by Connor Wickham, but he thrashed at it and Sunderland headed into the break 0-1 down.
No personnel changes were made by O'Neill at the break, but Sunderland entered the second half now in a 4-4-2 formation, as the manager used pre-season games in the way they should be. It seemed to have little effect, with Seongnam again starting the brighter, as Reina flashed a decent effort over the crossbar. Hong Chul then found space in behind, but his touch let him down and the chance went begging.
Despite now deploying two specific strikers up front, Sunderland struggled to create much in the early stages. The most immediate product of the formation change was a ceding of their control of the midfield, most perfectly illustrated when Chul skipped past Cattermole and played in Calvo again, only for the latter to screw his effort beyond the far post.
Just after the hour mark, Wickham - who was excellent up front, both on his own and in a two - fired in a low cross only for Campbell to strike the ball over the bar under the close attentions of Yun Young-Sun.
Carlos Cuellar came on in place of Bramble to make his debut and, soon after, Sunderland had their best chance. A progressive run by Gardner saw him play in Wickham, who's first time effort was tipped onto the post by Jeong San. It was good movement from the young striker, who looked hugely promising throughout.
Sunderland's pressure continued, but they couldn't find the net. Michael Turner headed wide when gifted acres of room in the area, before Gardner struck the bar with a thunderous free kick from all of thirty yards. Roarie Deacon and Blair Adams replaced Kieran Richardson and Wes Brown - a move which saw David Meyler shift to right-back.
From there the Black Cats tired, and Seongnam ended the game on top. Jeon Hyeon-Chul struck a post by way of Mignolet's fingertips, then had another effort after again finding space behind Meyler, and finally struck a vicious effort that Mignolet could only beat away for a corner. Ryan Noble replaced Fraizer Campbell but had little impact, and the Koreans wound the clock down for an impressive win.
Martin O'Neill cut an unimpressed figure on the touchline, but there were positives to take. Connor Wickham looked stronger than ever physically and displayed a good first touch and awareness of his fellow team-mates - it was an impressive showing from the youngster. Simon Mignolet reaffirmed his role as the club's best keeper, while Fraizer Campbell and Kieran Richardson looked promising when deployed as wide attackers.
The most glaring thing to come out of this game was the need for a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation. 4-4-2 is seen by many as obsolete anyway, and is clearly not the right formation for this Sunderland side - they are much better suited to fielding three central midfielders.
Sunderland's hopes of winning the Peace Cup are now over, but they will remain in Korea for a final game on Sunday. They'll face the losers of tomorrow's tie between Hamburg and FC Groningen at 8.30am BST - be sure to follow @RokerReport on Twitter for live-tweeting of the game.
Team (Ratings in brackets)
Starting XI: Mignolet (8), Brown (6), Turner (6), Bramble (4), Colback (6), Meyler (6), Cattermole (6), Gardner (7), Campbell (6), Richardson (6), Wickham (8)
Subs Used: Cuellar (6), Deacon (5), Adams (5), Noble (5)
Man Of The Match: Connor Wickham - A struggler with injuries last year, Wickham has the unenviable prospect of having to live with the hefty price tag placed on his head when the club signed him last summer. It was reassuring to see him perform well here today, and hopefully he will go on to prove his doubters - of which, ridiculously, there seem to be a few - comprehensively wrong.
Deployed as lone central striker, he cut an imposing presence and showed a deftness of touch that was sometimes lacking last year. His best moment came at the end of the first half, when he chested the ball down to his feet before turning it round the corner for the onrushing Kieran Richardson.
Overly hesitant at times, he still has a lot to learn - but the talent is clearly there. His first time shot in the second half was unfortunate to come back off the post, while he would have had an assist had Fraizer Campbell not fired over from close range.