Superb All-Round Team Display Is Spearheaded By A Dangerous Attack
Continuing their recent weekly improvements Sunderland produced a brilliant showing throughout the whole side against Leicester City on Saturday, and it was that which saw us start the game well and, ultimately, fully justify winning the three points.
It was like Sunderland cherry picked every positive aspect from the three games previous and then put them all together against Leicester.
The only grievance you could have is that we didn’t keep a clean sheet, but with strong displays in defence and another match-winning save from Jordan Pickford, the boys at the back certainly played a huge part in the win.
Despite Leicester's poor domestic performances so far this season, the game against the champions looked like it would be the one where Sunderland either proved they’d turned a corner or slipped back into disappointing defeats. The Bournemouth win had an air of fortune to it. Hull are, well, Hull. Even though the performance merited more, we left Liverpool empty-handed.
It’s not very often that Sunderland have ended a match having had most of the ball but they ended Saturday’s game having had just over 53% possession.
It was far from a slow possession-based game, though. Sunderland moved the ball around quite quickly and if we weren’t playing it direct to Victor Anichebe, then we were getting it upfield swiftly through neat attacking play. It was good to see the team showcasing such a variety of passing and it stopped Sunderland from becoming one-dimensional. The main plan may have been to use Anichebe’s hold up play to bring Van Aanholt into the game but we definitely had more about us than just one idea.
Even though it’s hard for the opposition to deal with the balls up to Anichebe, making sure Leicester were kept guessing by using the likes of Patrick van Aanholt and Duncan Watmore to carry the ball forward was important. Varied attacking play and fluidity when moving forward was crucial as it meant Sunderland were able to have a high number of shots, ending the game with 22 efforts on goal. The amount of crosses made from wide areas also proved to be important, with both goals coming from balls played from the flanks.
It was how Sunderland got into those positions to cross that was most interesting, though.
Take the quick flurry where Jermain Defoe saw a shot blocked by Wes Morgan, before Duncan Watmore headed wide a few seconds later. Those two chances came about through quick interplay and putting pressure on the opposition inside their own half, ending with Van Aanholt crossing for Watmore to head past the post. For Defoe’s goal though, it was totally different - it was a long ball forward from Lamine Kone, held up by Anichebe who then crossed into the box. Watmore’s shot was blocked, the ball fell to Defoe and he finished with his first touch.
It would be easy for Sunderland to just keep going route one, since Anichebe is in such scintillating form, and we could then look for Defoe over the top. Being direct doesn’t always mean going long - it just means moving things forward quickly, and that’s exactly what Sunderland are doing right now. With players who are complimenting each other rather well, it looks like they can give most Premier League defences something to worry about.
Half Time Switch Proved Pivotal
Whilst neither change was made for tactical reasons, the half-time introductions of Sebastian Larsson and Jan Kirchhoff to the side in place of Steven Pienaar (eye) and Jason Denayer (illness) ensured that we not only helped to continue our first-half momentum but also further aided our capabilities in attacking positions.
Not only did they combine well for the opening goal, but they were involved in just about every move me made both offensively and defensively. They made two tackles each and while Kirchhoff was intercepting (3), Larsson getting his blocks in (also 3). Leicester may have nabbed a goal and come close in injury time to getting level but only eleven touches in the Sunderland penalty area throughout the second half is a good testament to how well the midfield screened the back four.
It was fitting that Sunderland broke the deadlock through the two men returning from long injury layoffs. As previously mentioned, without their introduction, Sunderland may not have kept up their momentum - given Larsson’s tireless off the ball work and Kirchhoff’s general eloquence.
Didier Ndong, who himself grafted and never stopped looking for the ball, was able to be guided through the second half by two players who have both played big parts in previous Sunderland survival campaigns. He may be frustrating some fans but I felt it was another decent performance from Ndong, with some excellent off the ball play.
It’s work that often doesn’t get the credit it deserves and you can rightly level some criticsism at him for giving away the ball a couple of times but he also won it back well too. Ndong is a raw player and certainly one who needs to iron out his occasional mistakes but there's definitely a player to develop in there.
With both The Hoff and The Beautiful Swede now close to full fitness, Sunderland look like they have some decent options to choose from in the middle and that can only help us to keep this run of form going.
Sunderland's Dynamic Defence
Most Sunderland fans would have kept John O’Shea in the side after his solid performance against Liverpool but the manager opted to show faith in the back four that kept Sunderland’s solitary clean sheet this season against Hull - and it proved to be the correct call.
Papy Djilobodji was outstanding after his re-introduction to the side and the hope now is that he continues to steadily improve.
Continuing to look a much calmer presence at the back, Papy was instrumental in keeping the likes of Jamie Vardy and Islam Slimani quiet. He may not have won any tackles but he also didn’t attempt any, proof that Djilobodji is making an effort to stop diving into challenges and getting caught out because of it. What he did do was win challenges in the air (3), make interceptions (2) and block the ball (4), showing he has the intelligence and reading of game required so keep putting performances such as this.
The renaissance of Billy Jones continued as he broke up play with three interceptions (the most of any Sunderland player) and, on the opposite flank, Patrick van Aanholt had a fantastic game. Not only was he flying up the wing to provide attacking support, he was often thwarting Leicester’s efforts down the left-hand side.
With a couple of tackles and a couple blocks, Van Aanholt was keen to show there’s more to him than just bombing on from deep. After Jermain Defoe, Van Aanholt also had the best pass completion rate of anyone in red and white, completing 89% of his passes - his record last weekend at Liverpool was incredibly similar, and gives us some hope that he's starting to grow in confidence with each passing week.
The ideas are flowing through the team now and there’s a clear philosophy being shown on the pitch. If our better players can keep delivering, others will, in turn, continue to rediscover their form.
Who knows, if we keep this up we may even be able to celebrate a Christmas outside the bottom three - a strange, slightly unnerving thought!