Didier The Dictator
No, not that type of dictator...
Ndong has endured a tough start to life in the Premier League. His club record transfer fee and the absence of Yann M’Vila on Wearside has, rightly or wrongly, led to high expectations being placed on his young and inexperienced shoulders. But on Saturday he showed maturity beyond his years. At just 22, Ndong was the oldest of the midfield trio, and he stepped up accordingly.
The wealth of statistics available to fans has changed how football is viewed. But they don’t always tell the full picture, and certainly don’t in Ndong’s case. He didn’t shoot once. He didn’t tackle once. He didn’t dribble once. So what exactly did he do?
David Moyes, like at Bournemouth last time out, was happy to concede possession to Hull. It was important, then, that when Sunderland got the ball, they made good use of it. And that’s where Ndong comes in. The Gabon international was not scared to get on the ball and always made himself available for a pass, leading the team with 51 made (86% accuracy). The heatmap shows that Ndong spent most of the game in a deeper midfield position on both sides of the pitch, acting as the base of the midfield: from here was able to dictate the play when Sunderland were in possession of the ball.
While most of his passes were made sideways - he also played some pacey balls into Anichebe early on - this was not necessarily a bad thing. With 72%, Sunderland have the third worst passing success in the division. And at times, Hull were enjoying dominant spells of possession where they were threatening Pickford’s goal. Ndong helped Sunderland to gain a foothold in the game and provided much-needed pressure relief for a suspect-looking defence by simply taking care of the ball.
It shouldn’t be something that needs pointing out at all, but considering how weak the Sunderland midfield has been for the majority of the season, Ndong’s willingness to get on the ball and calmness with it showed maturity and responsibility, which hopefully bodes well for his future.
Watmore The Workhorse
Duncan Watmore once again showed why Moyes is right to continue to show faith in the youngster. He’ll never be the best technical player and is still very raw and rough around the edges, but he’s very important to this side and how it’s being set up to play. Commentating on the game, Neil McCann said that Watmore "needs to slow down sometimes," and he’s correct. But that’s what also makes him important to the team; his energy and constant running in both halves of the pitch. Watmore accounted for just 1.8% of the game’s possession and made just 10 accurate passes (out of 15 attempted), but it was his work off the ball that helped his side to victory.
With 16 minutes on the clock, Anichebe attempted to play Watmore in down the right channel. The ball was overhit and Watmore was second best, but true to form, he continued to chase after it. A misunderstanding between Ahmed Elmohamady and David Marshall gave him a chance to get to the ball, which he did, but he was wiped out by the Hull ‘keeper. Referee Lee Mason failed to award a penalty but Watmore’s commitment and determination to win the ball typified his style of play and importance to the team.
Watmore’s energy was also vital in defence. When Pickford shanked a kick straight to Robert Snodgrass, Watmore was the first on the scene, preventing the Scotsman a clear route to goal. Despite being outnumbered two-to-one, Watmore was able to block Ryan Mason’s attempted cross as his teammates got back to help defend the attack.
It wasn’t just hard work that saw Watmore impress, though. He has began to show intelligence on the pitch and take up good positions - evidenced by his role in Defoe’s opening goal. As Billy Jones looped the ball forward, Watmore - who had taken up a central position - beat Michael Dawson to the ball and flicked it beyond, leaving Defoe to close in on a goalscoring situation.
Watmore also took up an intelligent position for Anichebe’s first goal, moving towards the edge of the Hull box. Patrick van Aanholt played the ball into Watmore, who had taken three Hull players out of the game, before receiving the ball back and teeing up the Nigerian. It may be a simple thing, or should be, at least, but it shows that the youngster is developing as a footballer and an attacking threat.
After playing the last 20 minutes at Bournemouth in midfield, Denayer was given a starting role alongside Ndong and Paddy McNair on Saturday. While he had struggled early season (most did, to be fair to him) in defence, Denayer looked extremely comfortable in the middle of the pitch.
The Belgian was an effective shield for the defence with two tackles, two clearances, two blocks and one interception. Playing mainly on the left side of midfield, Denayer helped to reduce the effectiveness of the likes of Robert Snodgrass through tactical discipline and positional awareness. With van Aanholt’s love of getting forward (and subsequently not tracking back), it was important that players showed responsibility and covered the spaces that he left behind, and Denayer did just that.
Denayer was also useful in attacking situations, helping the team to move up the pitch with aggressive pressing at times. And with two successful dribbles, more than any of his teammates, he showed intent to drive the team forward. Watmore has rightly received credit for his role in Defoe’s goal, but Denayer was just as important. His lung-busting run off Markus Henriksen from the centre circle saw him support his forward in attack, and Curtis Davies had no choice but to go with the Belgian, therefore opening up space for Defoe to fire home.
Denayer also completed 27 of his 31 attempted passes, and while the majority were sideways, he helped Sunderland to gain a foothold in the game and showed signs of what could potentially be a very decent partnership with Ndong in the centre of the pitch. The pair seemed to have formed some sort of understanding, often creating passing angles for each other, which should hopefully develop the more they play together.
It’s good news for Sunderland that players are performing well without visibly standing out. Tremendous saves from Pickford and the goals of Defoe and Anichebe have rightfully taken the headlines, but it’s encouraging that players are contributing to the team in ways that may not be so obvious initially. While performances may not have been great recently - results certainly have, though - it’s good to see that some players appear to be becoming more comfortable and confident in their abilities on the pitch, which can only help Sunderland in the long run.