Love him or hate him, and say what you want about Patrick van Aanholt’s defensive capabilities, but it’s clear that the Dutchman is one of Sunderland’s most dangerous attacking threats - and he has been since he arrived on Wearside. And while van Aanholt has remained consistent in attack, registering six goals and nine assists despite a rotating mix of left wing partners in two-and-a-bit seasons, the recent link-up with Victor Anichebe looks like it could be the most productive one yet.
There have been signs, particularly against Leicester on Saturday, that the partnership between the two could add a whole new dimension to Sunderland’s attacking play. Danny Simpson, for one, certainly couldn’t wait to get off the Stadium of Light pitch. David Moyes’ decision to play Anichebe on the left side of an attacking trio has proved to be a masterstroke, and he certainly deserves credit for that. Like Adam Smith at Bournemouth, Simpson endured a torrid afternoon against the Nigerian and really struggled to come to terms with his physicality.
Not only did this create opportunities for himself, but Anichebe’s beating of Simpson allowed van Aanholt more time and more space in which to work in, with and without the ball.
Almost straight from the kick off, both players looked to combine down the left hand side. The first GIF below shows a move that is almost a carbon copy of Anichebe’s goal at Bournemouth, which can be viewed in the second GIF. The ball didn’t end up in the net this time around though, unfortunately, but it signaled Sunderland’s intent to attack Leicester’s right hand side.
Just like at Bournemouth, Defoe rolled the ball into Anichebe, whose strength and physical presence allowed him to back towards the Leicester goal. Van Aanholt’s run from deep provided a split-second distraction for Simpson, allowing Anichebe the space to get his shot off.
On paper, the decision to attack Simpson looked a strange one. The full back had been relatively strong beforehand, winning 1.3 tackles per game, making 2.3 interceptions and 4.8 clearances per game, while being dribbled past just 0.6 times per game. But Moyes clearly had faith in his left hand side to have the beating of the former Sunderland loanee, and his faith was certainly justified. There were five instances in the first 12 minutes alone of the duo leaving Simpson in trouble.
During his time at Sunderland, van Aanholt has typically played alongside smaller, more mobile wingers like Fabio Borini and Emanuele Giaccherini, meaning that he had to rely more on quick one-twos and finding space for himself. He’s never really had somebody who can hold the ball up for him until now. Anichebe certainly can.
The GIFs below show the variety of ways in which Anichebe linked up with van Aanholt. At times, as shown in the first GIF, Anichebe used clever movement. In other instances, as shown in the third GIF, Anichebe used sheer strength and physical presence to combine with his full back.
Often regarded as nothing more than a battering ram, Anichebe has shown a surprisingly high level of skill and footballing intelligence. The end result is a more dynamic attacking threat, not just from Anichebe, but from van Aanholt too, who now has the assurance that he can play somebody who can make the ball stick.
As a result of their partnership, PVA could have ended the game with two assists. Firstly, he showed great composure to pick out an open Anichebe, who saw his goalbound effort deflected wide. Secondly, he combined with the big man, who held off Daniel Amartey, before being fouled in the box by Simpson, only for Andre Marriner to wave his appeals away.
It was a lucky escape for Simpson, who, as the GIF below shows, clearly wanted nothing to do with Anichebe as the game went on.
But the pair did get their rewards in the end, with both playing a significant role in Jermain Defoe’s eighth league goal of the season.
Anichebe easily held off Simpson and created space for himself. Simpson’s struggles throughout the game caused Andy King and Demarai Gray to offer defensive support, but van Aanholt’s superb off-the-ball run opened up a significant gap for Anichebe to feed an open Duncan Watmore. It was a simple but hugely effective attacking move.
The introduction of a fully-fit Anichebe into the Sunderland side has transformed the team’s fortunes. Sunderland now look like they have a gameplan and a recognisable way in which they want to play - a stark contrast to what was seen earlier in the season. And importantly, his link-up play with van Aanholt has freed up space for other players - most significantly, Jermain Defoe. The Premier League season is a marathon and not a sprint, of course, but early indications suggest that the van Aanholt-Anichebe partnership could help Sunderland over the finishing line for a 10th successive time.
Last week, I questioned whether Steven Pienaar could play in midfield for Sunderland. I was impressed by his performance against Leicester on Saturday. Pienaar had a strong 45 minutes before departing the game through injury, and while I still remain unconvinced, it was pleasing to see a much better performance from him this time out.