Victor Anichebe’s colossal performance helped Sunderland to their first win of the season at Bournemouth on Saturday. Despite playing three quarters of the game with a cracked rib, the Nigerian international scored one goal and won the penalty that saw Jermain Defoe fire the winner, leaving Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson raving about his effort:
You won’t see a better performance from a centre forward that’s paid to hold the ball up and bring people into the game, and make themselves a nuisance through the match - nobody will play as well as that.
High praise indeed. But what made Anichebe’s performance so impressive?
Bullying Adam Smith
Bournemouth’s right back has enjoyed a strong start to the season, particularly in attacking areas. No defender has recorded more assists in the league this season than Smith, a feat he was able to achieve in the first ten minutes of Saturday’s game when creating Dan Gosling’s opener. Smith is also one of Bournemouth’s top performers in terms of passes made, dribbles completed and times fouled per game – particularly via his advancement into the opposition’s half. Long story short, Bournemouth look to Smith as one of their most effective attacking outlets.
He did create the opener, of course, but beyond that, Smith struggled to affect the game to any great extent in attacking areas. His heatmap shows that he spent most of the game just inside of the Sunderland half, struggling to find space down the wing in advanced areas. And while he made 67 passes, including 35 forward passes, very few were of any real consequence, partly due to his inability to find space.
Anichebe deserves real credit for this. Tasked with playing a withdrawn striker role on the left side of the pitch, it was important that he tracked Smith up and down the pitch to provide support for Patrick van Aanholt. Anichebe’s heatmap shows that he stuck to his task admirably, despite the positional unfamiliarity that he was faced with. With five minutes to go until half time, Anichebe did switch off and allowed Smith in behind him, however. Fortunately, van Aanholt was able to come across and clear the danger. Smith went on to enjoy greater success down the wing when Steven Pienaar was dismissed, with Moyes facing the dilemma of keeping Anichebe out wide or using him as a focal point to relieve pressure, but largely, though, Anichebe did a very good job for the team in that regard. The assist also came with Anichebe playing on the right wing, rather than the left where he would have been tracking Smith.
It was in attack that Anichebe really had Smith’s (and his fellow defenders, to an extent) number, though. The Bournemouth man averages just 0.8 aerial duels won per game – easily the weakest of their defence in that regard – and it certainly told in this encounter. Sunderland won 67% of the aerial duels, and Anichebe played a huge part in this, winning a massive 43% of the team’s total (and 67% of his own). The two faced off only three times in this game, with Anichebe winning twice (the only duel he lost against Smith was in his own half), but the Sunderland man’s presence was clearly felt by Smith. Unable to best him in the air, teammates Simon Francis and Gosling were called over to compete with Anichebe – not very successfully, creating space in other areas of the pitch for his teammates.
Anichebe’s heatmap demonstrates how positionally focused he was on the area around Smith. More often than not, Anichebe chose to come deep, drawing Smith away from his starting position and therefore opening up space for van Aanholt to run in behind. In the 13th minute, Smith looked to get close to Anichebe, but realising that Junior Stanislas had failed to follow van Aanholt, he attempted to back off. By that time it was too late, and Anichebe played a perfectly weighted ball to his full back. Fortunately for Bournemouth, his attempted pull back was intercepted before it reached Defoe. And that was just one instance in which Anichebe had Smith in danger.
Having been unable to deal with Anichebe all afternoon, Smith then conceded the penalty which saw Sunderland take all three points. The Sunderland man had previously used his strength to hold off Smith, so surely standing off and facing Anichebe head on, with a head start, would provide him with a greater chance of success? Think again. Starting from just inside his own half, Anichebe showed a devastating burst of pace to get beyond Smith before being fouled in the box.
He’ll be pleased to know that he won’t have to face Anichebe again until April 29.
Occupying The Opposition (And Providing Support for Defoe)
Anichebe was like a magnet to the Bournemouth side. When he got the ball, Bournemouth players followed. This pattern was established in the first thirty seconds, when two Bournemouth defenders followed Anichebe as he received a throw in. It reads like an irrelevant or meaningless point, but that fact is that Anichebe’s presence drew players out and opened up space for his teammates. In this instance, Sunderland had to make do with another throw in, but it set the tone for the big man’s impact on the game.
Minutes later, Anichebe flicked on a long goal kick from Pickford, beating both Gosling and Harry Arter to the ball. It was noted ahead of the game that Bournemouth’s midfield two look to sit deep and cut off passing lanes. Ordinarily, they’d have no issue doing so against Sunderland, with an isolated Defoe set to be the only threat beyond them. But credit has to go to Moyes, who changed his setup to suit Sunderland’s recent long ball style. With Anichebe providing another attacking presence, Arter and Gosling were drawn to the ball, leaving space in behind them that Duncan Watmore ran in to. With the Bournemouth back four now watching Defoe, including a tucked in Charlie Daniels, space now opened up on the right wing for Billy Jones to gallop in to. Nothing came of the move, but it showed the impact and potential that Anichebe’s presence could create on the pitch.
And Sunderland (almost) saw that impact on the stroke of half time. By then, Anichebe well and truly had the beating of Adam Smith, who had no idea how to cope with him. With Anichebe drifting in to a middle left position, Smith, and Arter, chose to follow, only to be beaten by some clever footwork. Bournemouth were now in trouble; their defenders had to shift over to cover Smith while their left sided midfield needed to cover the gap left by Arter. Anichebe played the ball to a wide open Jones, whose inch-perfect cross found an unfortunately offside Watmore to finish. The move was a lovely counter-attack in which the presence of Anichebe helped to create space for other players.
His goalscoring record is poor for a striker – everybody knows that. But Anichebe has always been regarded as a powerful and physical striker. Sunderland have lacked a physical presence this season, particularly in attacking areas, and Anichebe certainly proved that he can be the man to fill that void.
Take his goal, for example. The first thing to note is that Anichebe begins outside of Smith, who moves behind the striker to remain tight. Smith had a torrid time against the big man and looks for the safety of a goalside position. But Paddy McNair – and he deserves huge credit for this – runs off Stanislas, causing Smith to shift over towards him. This leaves Anichebe one on one with Francis. Using his strength, Anichebe continues to back into the Bournemouth captain, pushing him further towards his own goal. Francis doesn’t appear to be doing much wrong as he successfully manages to push Anichebe away from goal. Until he decides to dive in, that is. Anichebe has faith in his strength and uses his arm to push the defender away. Francis manages to pick himself back up, but it’s too late as Big Vic fires an unstoppable strike past Artur Boruc.
Beyond scoring the equaliser and earning the winning penalty, Anichebe’s hold up play was exceptional, particularly in the latter stages of the game. With Sunderland under pressure after the dismissal of Pienaar, it was important to get the ball forward, hold onto it and bring others into play, and Anichebe did exactly that. In the 93rd minute, he took down a long goal kick from Jordan Pickford and held off three Bournemouth players to win a throw in. And with the game heading into its final seconds, Anichebe barged Smith away with authority, just to rub salt into the full back’s wounds. It was fitting that the final whistle ended with the ball at Anichebe’s feet after a colossal performance.
All in all, it was a superb performance from Victor Anichebe when Sunderland needed it most.