As the team news came through the most eye catching names on the team sheet were Lamine Kone and Jan Kirchhoff. Kone was making his debut after signing from FC Lorient last week and Kirchhoff was making his first start after a shaky substitute appearance away to Tottenham.
Most expected Sunderland to be lining up in a 3-5-2, due to John O'Shea's added presence in the starting XI, but the Black Cats shaped up in a 4-1-4-1 formation.
Vito Mannone retained his place in goal, O'Shea and Kone were the centre half pairing and Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt held down their full back roles.
Despite a recent dip in form, Lee Cattermole and Yann M'Vila played in central midfield but this time they had the extra cover of Jan Kirchhoff who occupied the position between defence and midfield. As expected, Jermain Defoe started in the lone striker role with Fabio Borini and Jeremain Lens on the wings to provide support.
Whabi Khazri, the attacking midfielder signed from Bordeaux on Saturday, started on the bench.
The visitors played a fairly orthodox 4-4-2, with Kelechi Iheanacho starting alongside Sergio Aguero, after the young Nigerian scored a hattrick against Aston Villa in The FA Cup.
The big miss for City was, of course, Kevin De Bruyne who devastated Sunderland in the reverse fixture on Boxing Day. The Belgian has been sidelined for a few weeks with knee and ankle ligament damage and this was Man City's first league game without him.
City will have been keen for Iheanacho to step up in his absence, to demonstrate to their fellow title challengers that they have plenty of quality within their ranks. Yaya Toure and Fernandinho played in the centre of midfield, with both being expected to provide support to both defence and attack with their box to box style. Additional attacking support on the wings would be provided by David Silva and Jesus Navas.
If I may be slightly cliched, it was a big game at both ends of the table, with Sunderland battling against relegation and Manchester City fighting for the title. The visitors went into the game favourites and were expected to win against a side fighting for their lives, as any team with ambitions of winning the league would be. This would usually be seen as a "bonus" game for Sunderland but with time running out, they'd have to start picking up points from the teams at the top.
In Sunderland's last game, against Bournemouth, they were over ran in midfield and a plan of conceding possession didn't work at all. It's no surprise then that Sam Allardyce gave Jan Kirchhoff the opportunity to provide additional support to Lee Cattermole and Yann M'Vila to ensure Sunderland wouldn't be overran and that they would see more of the ball. The fact that City often line up with only two central midfielders will have been on Big Sam's mind too, knowing that playing a more attack minded player ahead of Cattermole and M'Vila would have been very dangerous as they would often find themselves in a two-on-two situation in the middle.
This was a game where Sunderland needed solidity and three more defensive minded midfielders was a good choice.
Like Kirchhoff, Lamine Kone would be in for a big night. The Ivorian was preferred to Wes Brown to make his debut alongside John O'Shea and the Sunderland captain will have been expected to talk Kone through the game and to use his influence to full effect. Allardyce will have had the pace of Manchester City in mind too, making Kone a more sensible option ahead of Brown.
Man City will have been happy for Sunderland to take the majority of the ball though, knowing the damage the likes of Sergio Aguero can do on the counter attack. In fact, Sunderland witnessed this in full effect when both sides met at the Stadium of Light in the League Cup 3rd Round in September. City ran out 4-1 winners and were 4-0 up at half time with Aguero enjoying a fine evening.
It was a game which began fairly evenly but Manchester City were looking sharper in trying to seize the initiative. Gael Clichy sent in an awkward cross from the left hand side to the near post that Lamine Kone reacted to first, almost slicing the ball out for a corner, before Vito Mannone got down well to claim the ball. The majority of Man City's dribbles throughout the game came from their left/Sunderland's right hand side as the visitors looked for David Silva to use his skill and trickery against the more limited Billy Jones. It probably represents the first time opposition have targeted our right hand side, rather than our left this season. Opposition sides are possibly realising that bombing on from our left leaves gaps for Patrick van Aanholt, who has enjoyed good attacking form lately, to exploit.
Despite City looking to go down their left, it was from their right hand side that their goal emerged from after only fifteen minutes. The ball kindly fell to Jesus Navas, whose drilled cross took a deflection off van Aanholt and the ball landed perfectly for Sergio Aguero who put the ball into the top right hand corner with the outside of his foot. 1-0 to Manchester City and Sunderland had conceded yet another early goal.
Sunderland didn't become disheartened by going behind though and looked to play more on the front foot. In the twenty minutes that followed the opening goal, the home side had 49% of the possession showing that Sam Allardyce's desire for his side to see more of the ball was being adhered to. It was also proving a good decision to go to a central midfield trio with Jan Kirchhoff looking calm and composed in possession and also good in the tackle. Six tackles were made by Sunderland in that same twenty minute period, half of which were by Kirchhoff and two by Cattermole. It showed how much Sunderland were matching Man City in the middle of the pitch when you see that three of those six tackles were made on the talismanic Yaya Toure, someone who doesn't surrender possession easily.
On thirty-four minutes, with Sunderland in the ascendancy, they created their best chance of the game. One of the aforementioned Kirchhoff tackles saw the ball fall to Fabio Borini who was fouled by Toure. Jeremain Lens sent in an excellent inswinging free kick which fell perfectly onto the head of Kone. The centre half should have had a debut goal but his header went wide of the far post, much to the relief of Joe Hart.
The home side didn't relent though and kept up their good play in the last ten minutes of the half. Sunderland were now edging Manchester City in having more possession and their pass success rate in the last ten minutes was a respectable 77% to City's 71%. As City looked to get in ahead at half time, Sunderland were getting in their faces and winning everything. More ariel duels won, more tackles won and, crucially, more shots. Jermain Defoe hadn't seen as much of the ball as he would have liked, only having eleven touches in the first half, but he fashioned an excellent chance for himself after being given the ball by Jeremain Lens.
Defoe turned Nicolas Otamendi superbly and sent a bullet of an effort low to Joe Hart's left but the England goalkeeper got a strong hand on the ball to produce an excellent save. Running onto the rebound was Billy Jones who tried to squeeze the ball in from a tight angle but was denied by the outside of the post.
The start of the second half saw another debut with Whabi Khazri replacing Jeremain Lens. The Dutchman was right to be brought off, having little impact on the game and his dreadful pass completion rate of 36% (the worst of any player on the pitch) will not have gone unnoticed by the manager.
For the first fifteen minutes of the second half, both sides played out a fairly quiet affair. Manchester City looked content to shut up shop now, confident they could hold on for the win. City were starting to take control of possession and kept the ball well for the most part. Sunderland may have made more tackles in this period but instead of winning the ball in the middle of the pitch, they were now making more tackles in their final third as the visitors took more control.
It continued to go that way up until the last fifteen minutes of the game, as well. Between the hour mark and the 75th minute, Manchester City had 58% of the possession, the most they'd had since the opening stages of the match. Sunderland hadn't been able to force a decent effort on goal in the second half either, their only real effort being a wayward shot from Lee Cattermole on the edge of the box.
It was at this point that Sam Allardyce realised he had to gamble and sacrificed Cattermole for Adam Johnson, changing the formation to a 4-2-3-1 with Johnson occupying a free role just behind Jermain Defoe. Jan Kirchhoff, who had marauded forward throughout most of the game, was now given more license to push on, as was Yann M'Vila. It did mean Sunderland got a foothold on the game again too as Man City also began to sit deeper. Just after Johnson's introduction, Sunderland kept the ball in City's final third as they struggled to find an opening before the ball fell to Billy Jones who set a powerful effort towards Joe Hart's goal. Hart would again deny Sunderland as he produced another good save to parry the ball wide for a corner.
The home side were now looking more of a threat since Allardyce tweaked his system. In the ten minutes that followed Johnson coming off the bench their possession leapt to 68% and they had three shots in that time. Whabi Khazri, who looked an excellent threat from set pieces, almost caught Joe Hart out at his near post as he sent in the resulting corner from Jones' effort.
The final Sunderland substitution was made as Fabio Borini made way for another debutante, Dame N'Doye. The Black Cats were really going all out for the win now and kept up their admirable determination. That determination was emphasised by Sunderland's nine tackles made in the final ten minutes of the game (including added time). As Man City started to sit even deeper, Sunderland racked up even more possession and pressed higher up the pitch. Patrick van Aanholt picked up the ball inside the City box but caught the ball under his feet meaning his attempted square pass was delayed and only forced a corner. It was another near post delivery from Whabi Khazri which was headed behind by City substitute Fernando for another Sunderland corner. Again Khazri attempted the near post delivery and this time Kirchhoff was able to head it down towards Dame N'Doye but the strikers shot was blocked by Otamendi.
There was still time for Sunderland to force a couple of late chances though. An awkward, floated cross was sent in by Patrick van Aanholt from the left hand side and Joe Hart punched the ball clear to Yann M'Vila, who was about twenty-five yards from goal. The Frenchman couldn't keep his shot down though and the ball sailed into the North Stand.
Another Khazri corner was sent in, after van Aanholt's attempted cross could only be turned behind by Bacary Sagna and the corner ball found it's way to the back post to N'Doye, but he couldn't direct his effort goalwards. Jan Kirchhoff tried to steer the ball towards goal but couldn't get any power behind his header and Man City gratefully managed to get the ball clear with Sunderland out of time.
Sunderland can take a lot of heart from this game, the major positives being the performances of Kirchhoff and Kone.
Kirchhoff made five tackles (green), five interceptions (blue) and 10 recoveries (amber)
After a debut which left many worried, Kirchhoff was assured in possession and committed with his tackling and energy. With six tackles won and an admirable overall pass success of 74%, especially considering his position and who he was up against, Sam Allardyce may have just found the perfect foil for between defence and midfield. If Allardyce is to try and execute another game plan of trying to keep possession and build from the back then Kirchhoff looks a good starting point.
Lamine Kone also showed why Allardyce has been chasing him for so long. The way Yaya Toure bounced off him in the second half demonstrated his physical ability and with Younes Kaboul almost back to full fitness, Sunderland now look to have some good defensive options as they look to stop conceding as many goals.
Encouragement can also be taken from Whabi Khazri. The Tunisian may have drifted in and out of the game but if he's to start ahead of Lens this coming weekend, then i think he'd be able to make a bigger overall impact on the game. We saw flashes of his skill against Manchester City and his set piece delivery will also give us great opportunities. Let's hope they can catch out Liverpool's suspect defence on Saturday and that Sunderland aren't having to merely take positives from another defeat.
All stats are according to whoscored.