After the defeat away to Tottenham Sam Allardyce went back to the starting line up that was victorious over Swansea, for yet another January clash against our relegation rivals. This meant a return in goal for Vito Mannone, who was preferred to Jordan Pickford, and Fabio Borini came back in for Danny Graham who joined Blackburn Rovers on loan earlier this week.
The formation was a fairly positive looking 4-2-3-1 with Wes Brown and John O'Shea continuing their run together at centre half with Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt at right back and left back respectively. Tasked with offering protection to the back four was Lee Cattermole and Yann M'Vila, both of whom would be expected to drop in and cover for either full back should they maraud forward.
Jermain Defoe occupied the lone striker role with Jeremain Lens initially lining up behind him with Borini out wide on the left and Adam Johnson on the right.
Eddie Howe set up Bournemouth to play a 4-1-4-1 formation with keeping possession being at the forefront of his mind. New signing Benik Afobe played as The Cherries only striker after scoring on his debut against Norwich last week and he'd have been looking at right winger Junior Stanislas to be his main source of service. With Bournemouth looking to keep the ball as much possible a big emphasis was placed on their three central midfielders; Harry Arter, Dan Gosling and Andrew Surman, three of Bournemouth's most dependable players. All three would be vital should they effectively execute their game plan and come away from the Stadium of Light with a decent result.
It's obvious how big a game this was for both sides and Sunderland needed a win to make up ground on their relegation rivals. A point wouldn't be the end of the world for Bournemouth due to their recent form and the game being away from home.
Sam Allardyce trusted his defenders that if Sunderland conceded possession, then we'd have enough to keep them at bay and be able to exploit them on the break by getting the ball forward quickly to the likes of Defoe, Lens and Johnson. It's why Allardyce went for such an experienced side, confident that O'Shea and Brown would have had the concentration levels required to defend well off the ball. Sunderland would also need Cattermole and M'Vila to not let Bournemouth's central midfield trio have too much time on the ball and press them as much as possible.
Fluidity would be required between Borini, Lens and Johnson in both attack and defence. Good movement would obviously be essential going forward if Sunderland wanted to hit Bournemouth on the break but all three would need to do their share of defensive work. This never seems to be an issue for Fabio Borini, the hardest working of The Black Cats attacking midfielders, but Jeremain Lens would need to continue his recent more committed performances.
Bournemouth were by far the better side for the opening half hour. If their plan was to keep the ball and Sunderland's was to let them have it, then that certainly turned out to be the case. In that first 30 minutes, The Cherries enjoyed 61% of the possession and by the end of the game that had only crept down a further 4%. Sunderland's issues at the beginning of the game didn't stem from their off the ball work though, it was what they did when they eventually regained possession. A damning pass success rate of 66% compared to Bournemouth's 86% showed how little the home side were effecting the game. Now of course you could argue that Sunderland were perhaps trying more risky passes so there's less chance of them being successful but it shows how hapless they were in the opening stages given that they didn't register a single shot on goal.
No one could argue that Bournemouth deserved to be ahead when they scored. Not longer after Benik Afobe had just failed to get on the end of Dan Goslings ball across the box, he headed the visitors in front. Much was made in the week of Bournemouth's record of getting goals in the first 15 minutes of games and this was now the third time they had done so against Sunderland this season. Junior Stanislas was allowed to get his cross in from the left hand side and after a somewhat fortuitous bounce, Afobe stooped to head it in. Mannone could have perhaps done better after getting a big hand on the ball but Eddie Howe's men were certainly worth their lead.
It wasn't until the final 15 minutes of the first half that Sunderland began to effect the game positively. Their passing got better, completing 102 passes and enjoying 69% of the possession between the half hour mark and half time. Bournemouth seemed to have lost their grip now, only completing 51 passes in the same amount of time and allowing Sunderland 4 shots on goal. John O'Shea pushed forward and forced Artur Boruc into a good save with a header towards the goalkeepers bottom left and the pressure from the home side continued.
Just when Bournemouth thought they were getting in at half time ahead, Patrick van Aanholt continued his fine attacking form to draw Sunderland level. It was a good goal from Sunderland's perspective too as they attacked diagonally across the pitch. Billy Jones took a throw in to Jeremain Lens, who quickly moved the ball on to Fabio Borini who played an inch perfect through ball to the advancing van Aanholt and the Dutchman smashed the ball past Boruc. Eddie Howe will have been furious with his side not just because of conceding so late in the half but conceding a goal that they should have been working on defending all week. It was almost a carbon copy of Sunderland's opener away to Spurs the week before and surely one of Howe's biggest instructions to his men will have been to watch the marauding van Aanholt. No complaints from Sunderland though, they'd woken up in the latter stages of the first half and the second half left everything to play for.
It was in the second half that we saw Sunderland execute more of their expected game plan. Despite Bournemouth enjoying more of the ball, Sunderland posed the biggest attacking threat in the first 15 minutes of the second half, having 5 shots on goal (4 on target) to Bournemouth's 1. Sunderland's off target effort came from a frustrated and hungry Jermain Defoe who flashed the ball just wide from around 30 yards out. The frustration was understandable as well when you take into account that he'd only had 13 touches in the first hour showing how little service he'd recieved. Comparethat to his opposite number, Benik Afobe who'd had exactly double that amount and a goal to his name. Defoe did well to get the better of two defenders though after Lee Cattermole, who looked much sharper in the second half after a poor first half showing, played nice long ball forward.
The home side shuffled their attacking midfielders for the second half as well. Adam Johnson occupied the number 10 role with Jeremain Lens spending the rest of his afternoon on the left wing so he could link up with Patrick van Aanholt. Fabio Borini played in a narrow right wing role before being substituted for Duncan Watmore.
The best chance in that period for The Black Cats came from Billy Jones. After Bournemouth failed to properly clear Adam Johnson's corner, the ball made it's way back to Johnson who sent an in-swinger back into the penalty area. The cross was perfect for the awaiting Jones, who got enough power behind the ball, but it was straight at Boruc who parried the ball away well.
In the final half an hour, the game became a more settled affair with both sides looking content with a point. Sunderland's biggest indicator of this was taking off the attacking threat of Jeremain Lens for Jack Rodwell and not even using their final substitution despite strikers Stephen Fletcher and Dame N'Doye sitting on the bench.
There was still time for both sides to carve out a final chance each though. Lewis Grabban, who had came on for Benik Afobe, was played through by Junior Stanislas and despite being one on one, dragged his shot wide of Vito Mannone's far post. In stoppage time, Patrick van Aanholt cut the ball back across the box and it fell to Duncan Watmore whose tame side footed effort was comfortably blocked. Watmore had little impact on the game if truth be told, that being his only shot after coming off the bench. He didn't complete any dribbles and only made two successful passes, for a player who is currently seen as more of an impact sub this was a disappointing afternoon for him.
A disappointing afternoon drew to a close and Sunderland recorded their first draw of Sam Allardyce's reign, in a game they felt like they had to win.
We all knew that Sunderland needed to win here to give their survival chances a major boost but it was also hugely important not to lose the game. After such a disastrous first half hour, Sam Allardyce will be thankful that his side came out of the game with at least something to show for it.
Most of Sunderland's inadequacies came from their inability to break up Bournemouth's play and not being able to get the ball forward quick enough. It was something that we saw against Swansea too and it's stemming from some poor performances from Lee Cattermole and Yann M'Vila suffering from a dip in form. Both men bucked their ideas up in the second half but there was a feeling of "too little, too late." Both players aren't really droppable at the moment though due to a lack of adequate replacements in the side.
Sebastian Larsson and Younes Kaboul should soon be back to full fitness which could prompt Allardyce to perhaps revert Sunderland back to the 3-5-2 system we saw earlier in his tenure. An extra midfielder would take some of the burden off Cattermole and M'Vila whilst Kaboul joining Brown and O'Shea at centre half allows us to push our attack minded full backs a bit further forward. It also, of course, would allow Jermain Defoe a strike partner. Our attack looked it's most potent with Defoe playing alongside Stephen Fletcher and whilst the Scotsman may be moving on this transfer window, it would give Sam Allardyce the chance to try Defoe alongside Dame N'Doye or perhaps even Jeremain Lens.
Sunderland now face a blank weekend before the midweek visit of Manchester City, let's hope this allows some tired legs a rest before a difficult month of fixtures begins.
All stats are according to whoscored.com