David Moyes elected to scrap the 3-4-3 formation from the midweek defeat to Chelsea and gave his team a much more familiar set up - a 4-2-3-1 saw Adnan Januzaj keep his place in the team (this time in the number 10 role, rather than out wide) and Victor Anichebe shook off his injury to make a return to the wide left.
With Jermain Defoe the most advanced and Fabio Borini wide on the right, it was as team packed with attacking intent. As an inside forward, Borini would be looking to cut inside to support Defoe, while Anichebe would be aiming to hold the ball up and open up space for his fellow attackers. In a freer role, Januzaj wouldn’t have to worry as much about defensive duties and could just focus on causing Watford problems across the whole frontline.
Due to four forwards being deployed, the manager would need to play two defensive minded players in his midfield two and it was no surprise to see Jason Denayer and Didier Ndong occupy those positions. Both men are good tacklers and both looked to press the opposition - something that would be vital if the gamble of four attackers was to pay off. So Denayer and Ndong would have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders, as they’d need to stop the visitors as well as help build Sunderland’s attacks.
Denayer and Ndong are starting to becoming regulars in the Sunderland midfield and there was a familiar look to the back line as well. Papy Djilobodji, Lamine Kone and Patrick van Aanholt made up three of the back four and they were joined by Donald Love at right back. It would be Love’s first start since August, a start handed to him due to the absence of Billy Jones. After the former Manchester United man made an impressive cameo against Chelsea and with Javier Manquillo still ruled out, there was no other choice than to give Love a chance.
With this formation, Sunderland were back playing to their strengths. The two defensive midfielders didn’t just give the team a license to play four forwards but it would give the full backs a chance to advance too. The movement across the team would need to be much sharper than it was against Chelsea but that would be expected, given Watford wouldn’t pose as much of a threat, compared to the title favourites.
Patrick van Aanholt is, of course, one of Sunderland’s biggest attacking threats and after being reunited with Victor Anichebe, he was often stinging the Hornets down their right hand side. He indeed delivered the killer blow, scoring the only goal of the game, after brilliantly making a run into the space vacated by Jermain Defoe.
As soon as Denayer got hold of the ball in the middle and layed it to Januzaj, Van Aanholt was away and didn’t stop running until he received the cross from Defoe. A sweet drop of the shoulder from Januzaj opened up the pitch for Sunderland and they showed the same kind of attacking fluidity they did in the wins over Bournemouth, Leicester and Hull in the build up to the match winner.
You look at that goal, and the way we attacked throughout the second half, and it makes it all the more baffling that Moyes made so many changes against Swansea. Especially breaking up the partnership of Van Aanholt and Anichebe, who combined more than any other pair of Sunderland players. The left back played the ball to the colossus 13 times, with it being reciprocated on 10 occasions. The next highest combination comes from Jordan Pickford playing his goal kicks/clearances to the aerial presence of Anichebe, so it shows just how much Sunderland rely on the “PVA/Cheebs” partnership.
As previously mentioned, Sunderland required strong showings from their midfield two. Both Denayer and Ndong would need to break up play, press the Watford attack and get the ball moved on quickly to the forwards. Both players were superb off the ball and made a combined 9 tackles, Denayer with 5 and Ndong making 4. You could make a strong case for either midfielder being Sunderland’s man of the match, such was their influence when The Lads were out of possession.
The only gripe you could really have is that Ndong did give the ball away 4 times, all in dangerous positions, in the middle of the field. That’s an element of his game the young Gabon international needs to cut out, which you’ll hope he will as he becomes more accustomed to the pace of the league. Once he does, he’ll hopefully start to become more confident in possession and look to play the ball forward more often. A high pass completion rate of 72% certainly isn’t bad but it would be nice to see him move things along a little quicker now and again, as he does often hesitate. If he keeps improving at the rate he is though, there’s no reason to think his work on the ball won’t soon be up to the standard of his work without it.
The men behind the midfield also put in stellar performances. Lamine Kone and Papy Djilobodji nullified any threat from Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo as both Watford strikers were virtually marked out of the game.
The Sunderland defence didn’t let either forward have many touches inside the penalty area and it led to Deeney and Ighalo just having one shot each. Furthermore, Kone and Djilobodji were fantastic in the air, winning 6 aerial duels apiece.
As Moyes looked to shut the game down, John O’Shea was introduced to provide Sunderland with an additional centre half and further protection as Watford began to flood our box. It may have been viewed as dangerous to sit back, especially since Sunderland were asserting an element of control over the game, but it was the right call to make. Watford were taking more risks at this stage and even with O’Shea replacing Januzaj, Sunderland still had outlets to counter with since Anichebe, Defoe and Van Aanholt were still on the field.
It wasn’t a pretty win but it's good to see Sunderland edge this kind of encounter. Far too often Sunderland have failed to win at home to beatable opposition and it’s been these scrappy affairs that they’ve often lost. Now that they have a game plan that they can be confident in, they are able to quickly move on from any set backs.
The Lads grew into the game by remembering what they’ve done well over recent weeks - the midfield won their individual battles, the defence made sure that Watford’s early attempts to take control of the game were all for nothing and the forwards showed quality when it mattered.
Adnan Januzaj may have found the position to blossom in on Wearside - from an attacking sense, everything went through Januzaj in the second half and with Donald Love impressing at right back, while Papy Djilobodji looks commanding, the players many thought were misfits may now be finding their place.
Two defeats in the week leading up to this game meant a win was much needed but Sunderland continued to showed they’re far from relegated just yet.