The Boleyn Ground was the setting for Dick Advocaat’s first match – and first loss – in English football. But don’t let the result fool you. For a coach with neither Premier League nor relegation-struggling experience, Dick got a lot right.
The notable change was Advocaat’s reintroduction of the defensive 4-3-3 with Seb Larsson, Jack Rodwell and Jordi Gómez as the midfield three. Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham were deployed as wingers but purposefully played as inside forwards, as part of a triangular attack with Jermain Defoe. Making the bench were Duncan Watmore (finally) and, thankfully, Adam Johnson.
West Ham expectedly started with strong pressure but a new-found urgency to Sunderland’s team unity and combined pressing game was difficult for the Hammers to contend with. The Black Cats prioritized keeping the game’s possession on their congested left flank, away from influential Hammers’ players Stewart Downing and Diafra Sakho. This never-ending conviction to tackling and pressing was encouraging, particularly the contributions of Larsson and Wickham. Both were committed all game.
When Allardyce’s team did break into space, they were free to produce crosses regularly into the Sunderland box – 25 in total in the first half alone. However, when Matt Jarvis wasn’t being matched for pace by Anthony Réveillère, Sunderland had the penalty box packed in advance. Sakho was crowded out and barely offered freedom to move. When he did, the ever-reliable Costel Pantilimon constantly beat him to the ball.
In attack, the link-up play between the front three strikers had its moments. Defoe – who was excellent off the ball – was gifted a golden chance but missed the target entirely. Fletcher made a lot of movement for set pieces but was less effective in open play. Wickham made several commanding runs that had no end product. In struggling to test the final third, Sunderland were restricted to some well-timed long balls from Larsson to Defoe which, ironically, continued to work every time, as Defoe consistently found space around James Collins.
The first half was won by Sunderland. They tackled more, they pressed more, they wanted it more.
The second half continued much the same way. Larsson, again, found Defoe with pitch-long high balls and their combination was becoming lethal. The former England international looked the most likely player to score. In defence, the midfield continued to frustrate West Ham with a pressing game that stubbed their attack at every opportunity. Pantilimon was also colossal in stopping the West Ham crosses dead.
On 70 minutes, as Dick barked orders at Adam Johnson on the side-lines, West Ham cranked up the pressure and Sunderland, in response, packed the defensive third, preparing for an opportunistic counter attack. That came minutes later when Johnson set off some neat pass-and-move play (hallelujah!), ending with a long-range pot shot from Patrick van Aanholt that was just saved by Adrián.
If not a draw, Sunderland still seemed the more likely to score as Defoe was constantly gifted space in the West Ham defence. However, on 87 minutes, the hammer fell when Mark Noble – under pressure – looped one over Sunderland’s defenders to the free-roaming Sakho. 1-0.
With Defoe substituted for Danny Graham a minute prior and Sakho himself substituted for defender Joey O’Brien, the full-time result was inevitable. Then there were bubbles. It was deflating but far removed from the mood set in recent games.
Despite the loss, there are positives that can be taken from the team’s approach under Dick. Though the odd example of Poyet-related frustrations existed (losing possession and making rash challenges in the defensive third), Advocaat has also apparently managed to scrambled together some tactical cohesion within the team, especially in defence. As for the attack, that performance should be encouraging for supporters. That didn't look like a team who could get relegated. It’s ironic, as this is all what Gus Poyet had tried to do for 17 months.
Keep the faith.