After his ninetieth minute equaliser against Crystal Palace, Fabio Borini was expected to start in place of Dame N'Doye but Sam Allardyce surprised everyone by naming Jermain Defoe on the substitutes bench. So, not only was it a big chance for Borini to cement his place in the starting XI, it was a good opportunity for N'Doye to show what he can do when he is played in his preferred role as the central striker. Further attacking threat for Sunderland would be provided by Wahbi Khazri.
The only other change for Sunderland was Younes Kaboul coming in for John O'Shea, with the club captain not being deemed fit enough to start after he was forced off early on in midweek against Crystal Palace. Kaboul's first start since his two month injury lay off would see him partner Lamine Kone in central defence as DeAndre Yedlin and Patrick van Aanholt both continued at right back and left back, respectively. After conceding eight goals at St Mary's last season, Vito Mannone would get to opportunity to exorcise some of the demons from that encounter.
The middle of Sunderland's midfield remained unchanged with Yann M'Vila, Jan Kirchhoff and Jack Rodwell all starting together for the second game running.
Injuries to Charlie Austin and Shane Long meant a start for Graziano Pelle in the lone striker role. Pelle has struggled to hit the heights he reached last season and he'd have Sadio Mane behind him who himself has struggled for form, failing to find the net since October.
Playing in the central midfield positions was Jordy Clasie and Oriol Romeu, with width being provided by Steven Davis and Dusan Tadic, whose penalty gave Southampton a 1-0 win in the reverse of this fixture back in November.
North East born Fraser Forster started in goal and had the usual Southampton centre half partnership in front of him, Virgil van Dijk and Jose Fonte. Completing the Southampton line up, in a 4-2-3-1 formation, were attack minded full backs Ryan Bertrand and Cuco Martina.
With Dame N'Doye up front, Sunderland would be expecting to see more hold up play than they usually would from their lone striker. N'Doye would be expected to bring Wahbi Khazri and Fabio Borini into the game more than Jermain Defoe would and his bigger physical presence would hopefully create more space for both wingers. It would therefore be essential that Sunderland's full backs, DeAndre Yedlin and Patrick van Aanholt, make over lapping runs as Borini and Khazri would inevitably be cutting inside.
As they have done in most games lately, Sunderland would concede possession and try to catch the opposition on the break. It gives a lot of responsibility to the three midfielders as they would have to be constantly working off the ball to limit Southampton's opportunities, whilst also making sure that when any of them wins the ball back they quickly make the correct pass to an attacking team mate, so that they quickly and effectively move up the field.
Kirchhoff would more than likely be the one to stay back when Sunderland were pushing forward so Jack Rodwell and Yann M'Vila would need to further display their attacking credentials, in a similar way to how they did against Crystal Palace.
Despite being in the middle of a goal drought, Sadio Mane would represent Southampton's main attacking threat.
With Kirchhoff sitting the deepest of Sunderland's midfielders he would be expected to keep a close eye on Mane whilst Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone dealt with Graziano Pelle. It's no doubt that Kone and Kaboul would be comfortable in dealing with the aerial threat posed by Pelle but Mane would offer a different problem given his pace and skill.
As expected, Southampton came out to control the early stages as they had the majority of possession and, in the first twenty minutes, had two shots on goal whilst Sunderland had none. It was a fairly tame start overall though, the main early highlight of the game being Wahbi Khazri booting the ball out for a corner from around 40 yards.
Sunderland did get a sight of goal after twenty-one minutes though, as Dame N'Doye seized upon some sloppy Southampton play and quickly found Fabio Borini who sped forward with the ball before seeing his shot blocked by Virgil van Dijk. They may not have made Southampton fully pay for their mistake but it was encouraging to see Sunderland looking sharp going forward given they had played the majority of the game so far without the ball.
In the fifteen minutes that followed Borini's effort, both sides had decent chances which was more to Sunderland's credit given that they only had 37% of the possession in that time. After a good knock down from Graziano Pelle, Dusan Tadic hit a shot into the ground that almost bounced over Vito Mannone but the Sunderland keeper did well to tip the ball over the bar.
Five minutes later Dame N'Doye would see his attempt to run down the wing cut short by Virgil van Dijk whose foul on the striker saw the Dutchman go into the referee's book. Wahbi Khazri sent in a looping inswinger that almost caught out Fraser Forster until his finger tips pushed it onto the post and Jan Kirchhoff, who was always leaning back, couldn't direct the rebound on target from eighteen yards. It was all very encouraging stuff from the Black Cats though, in the first half an hour they made as many tackles as Southampton and won the most aerial battles, so even though they'd had less of the ball they were still matching the home side.
It would be Sunderland that would get the best chance of the game so far, as well. Just after Virgil van Dijk headed the ball straight at Vito Mannone, Jack Rodwell got into a great position but failed to hit the target. A perfect through ball from Jan Kirchhoff gave Patrick van Aanholt the opportunity to tee up Rodwell who sent the ball wide from just twelve yards out. Whilst Rodwell definitely should have done better with the effort it was good to see him get into that area, something you don't feel like you'd get from Lee Cattermole.
Sunderland's players made a whopping 25 blocks throughout the game
The lads were almost punished for the wastefulness as well when Oriel Romeu made an untracked run into the box to get on the end of Ryan Bertrand's cross, only for Mannone to make his second important stop of the match. It would be the last chance of a fairly even half but one that had saw Sunderland use their time of the ball very wisely as they put the Southampton defence under just as much pressure as they had been.
In the first fifteen minutes of the second half, Sunderland remained content in conceding the ball but The Black Cats were now the side creating the most chances. Fabio Borini saw his well struck edge-of-the-box effort fly inches over Forster's bar after 52 minutes and his tenacity to wrestle the ball back from Jose Fonte allowed Yann M'Vila to set him up for a shot, from a tight angle, which was parried away by Forster. You could see how fired up Borini was as he looked to further prove to Sam Allardyce that he should be starting every week.
Sunderland were in the ascendancy and Allardyce looked to capitalise on that by bringing on Jermain Defoe just before the hour mark. Leaving the field was Dame N'Doye who had put in an average performance, making some decent passes to bring other players into the game, but not really troubling the Southampton defenders. It's certainly not going to be enough for him to stake a permanent claim for the lone striker role.
It took until the 69th minute for Southampton to create their first meaningful chance of the second half as Graziano Pelle saw his shot well blocked by DeAndre Yedlin, after the Italian did well to bring the ball down on his chest. It was around this time that Southampton had their most dominant spell, between 60 and 75 minutes they had 69% possession along with a very impressive pass success percentage of 88%. They had three shots to Sunderland's one, won more balls in the air, more corners and matched the visitors on tackles as they pursued a victory.
With Southampton threatening to overpower Sunderland, Sam Allardyce looked to solidify the side by taking off Wahbi Khazri for Sebastian Larsson. The returning Larsson, who had been out injured since mid December, would use his energy to press the Saints midfield and cut down their time on the ball. Some credit is due to Khazri though, whilst it wasn't his finest performance from an attacking point of view, he did some good defensive work and was carrying the ball out of our defensive third very well. Early fears of him being a player who would shirk defensive responsibility seem to be subsiding after his early displays.
As Southampton's momentum seemed to die down, they dealt themselves a huge blow. Jan Kirchhoff made an excellent first time pass to the feet of Fabio Borini, whose first touch was on par with the pass. After speeding past Virgil van Dijk, Borini showed his typical tenacity to get the better of Jose Fonte who brought him down to deny a clear goal scoring opportunity. A red card was referee Neil Swarbrick's only option and with 10 minutes left, Sunderland could sense the chance to take all three points. The resulting free kick almost saw Sunderland fully capitalise on their opportunity as Patrick van Aanholt's powerful drive was beaten away by Fraser Forster.
It wouldn't take Sunderland long to get their noses in front though. A handball from Graziano Pelle gave Sunderland a free kick just inside their own half and their intent to win the game was shown by everyone going forward and Vito Mannone launching the ball to the edge of the Southampton box. The ball was initially headed clear by van Dijk but only as far as Yann M'Vila, who headed it back where it had came from and this time it was flicked on by Jan Kirchhoff. The flick on fell to Lamine Kone who showed great composure to get past his man and square the ball to Jermain Defoe. With Defoe only 11 yards from goal, he was never going miss, only needing one touch to send the ball beyond Fraser Forster. The Black Cats had the lead with only five minutes to go and it looked like they game was theirs.
It wasn't to be the last action though and Sunderland would have their hearts broken in the 93rd minute. Looking to further protect their lead, Sunderland brought on John O'Shea for Jan Kirchhoff which reverted the system to a 5-4-1. The lack of presence in midfield proved to be costly as Southampton managed to work the ball to Dusan Tadic, who found himself with space in the Sunderland box, and he pulled the ball back for Virgil van Dijk who gave Vito Mannone no chance. It was cruel on Sunderland who looked like they were about to edge an even game and claim a big three points in their battle for survival. Their inability to keep possession, against ten men, had cost them though and it would be another game without a clean sheet for Sam Allardyce's men. Sunderland had to settle for a draw, a result they'd have taken before the game, it was just so devastating in the way it came.
Sunderland executed a well thought out game plan for the majority of this match. By removing Kirchhoff they removed their main midfield presence and Southampton exploited that weakness, working the ball through Sunderland much more comfortably after his departure. It says a lot for how important Kirchhoff is to Sunderland that him not being there was felt so quickly after him going off. It was another excellent performance from the German and, as I've said before in this feature, he is just as important as someone like Jermain Defoe in Sunderland's relegation battle.
Yann M'Vila made more passes than any other Sunderland outfield player (45)
Dame N'Doye failed to shine in the lone striker role and the man who took his place getting Sunderland's goal it looks like Sam Allardyce has no choice but to give an attacking three of Borini, Defoe and Khazri a run of games. Jermain Defoe came through with another important goal for Sunderland and it would be very difficult to drop him for the game against Newcastle, a team with such low confidence in defence. Since signing permanently, Fabio Borini had his best game for The Black Cats with his eagerness and flair creating goalscoring chances and also forcing Jose Fonte into a tackle that got him sent off. When you add the creativity and set piece delivery of Wahbi Khazri into that mix it has the look of a well balanced and talented front three. Let's hope it's given a chance to flourish.
Many have called for Jordan Pickford to be reinstated as the number one goalkeeper but Vito Mannone's performance will have certainly silenced a few critics. Sunderland's inability to keep a clean sheet may have cost them the win but Mannone did more than enough of his share in trying to keep the Saints at bay and his distribution looked much sharper. We've seen how much Mannone thrives on confidence and this is a game where he deserves to take plenty from it.
Overall, it was a good team effort from Sunderland. Lamine Kone continued to look assured, making some good interceptions and generally not looking at all fazed. It was also pleasing to see Jack Rodwell looking like a good fit in the midfield alongside Kirchhoff and M'Vila and on current form it looks like it'll be hard for Lee Cattermole to get back into the side. Sunderland are looking like a team again in both their play and in their commitment, you could see that in the build up to and the celebrations for Jermain Defoe's goal. That team spirit will be as important as anything over the next two months.
All stats and graphics are according to WhoScored.com