For the second game running Sam Allardyce made no changes to his Sunderland side. The midfield trio of Jan Kirchhoff, Yann M'Vila and Lee Cattermole remained, amidst calls from fans for the manager to name a more attack-minded midfield. There weren't such concerns for The Black Cats defence though, with Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone looking solid and dependable, whilst Patrick van Aanholt and DeAndre Yedlin continued to offer an attacking threat. Vito Mannone would be looking to keep a clean sheet at Carrow Road, something Sunderland had never done in the Premier League.
Despite some frustrations in front of goal lately, Big Sam kept the faith in Jermain Defoe, Fabio Borini and Wahbi Khazri. The front three, Defoe and Borini especially had not had the rub of the green against West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City, so a relegation six-pointer would be the perfect setting from them to turn their fortunes around.
The real story for Sunderland came from the substitutes bench. There was no space for Jack Rodwell or Jeremain Lens but there was a return to the squad for Duncan Watmore, who had been unavailable after damaging his ankle ligaments away at Liverpool back in February. Watmore's return to the side would be a welcome one, as The Black Cats look to rally themselves to safety.
During their defeat to Crystal Palace, Norwich were dealt a huge blow when Timm Klose was forced off with a serious looking knee injury. It was certainly serious enough for him to be ruled out of this match and it would be the only change for The Canaries, as Sebastien Bassong took the Swiss internationals place. Bassong would be partnered by Ryan Bennett in the heart of the defence, with Andre Wisdom and Martin Olsson at right and left back respectively. Starting in goal was John Ruddy, who'd recently just passed the 200 mark for Norwich appearances.
Attacking threat would be provided by striker Dieumerci Mbokani, Norwich's joint top scorer with five Premier League goals, and Steven Naismith. January signing Naismith would operate just behind Mbokani with additional support being provided by wingers Robbie Brady and Matt Jarvis. Lining up in a 4-4-1-1 formation, the City line up was completed by captain Gary O'Neil and Jonny Howson in the centre of midfield.
After Sam Allardyce had underlined the importance that Sunderland must not lose at Carrow Road, you could expect The Black Cats to absorb pressure and try to hurt Norwich on the break. Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone would be trusted to deal with Dieumerci Mbokani, whilst Jan Kirchhoff would be looking to keep Steven Naismith quiet. It would all be about not giving Norwich space on the edge of the box and not allowing the likes of Naismith and Jonny Howson to shoot from range, whilst also making sure Naismith's runs into the box didn't go untracked.
In Sunderland's last game, against Leicester City, their midfield had struggled with their passing despite tackling well. If they were to attack Norwich quickly, on the counter attack, then Kirchhoff would be hoping to get back up to his usual high standard of passing. Kirchhoff, along with Lee Cattermole and Yann M'Vila, would need to release Jermain Defoe, Wahbi Khazri and Fabio Borini at the earliest possibly opportunity, as all three players would be confident of taking on a fragile Canaries defence. Sunderland had been accused of playing too many high hanging balls to Jermain Defoe against Leciester, which were comfortably dealt with by Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, so they'd need to make sure their more direct passes were for Defoe to run on to, rather than challenge for in the air.
If the majority of the ball would be in Norwich's control, Sunderland would need to be effective as possible when in possession. A host of opportunities went to waste against West Brom and The Lads only managed one shot on target against Leicester City so they couldn't afford to be as negligent against Norwich, in such a crucial game.
At the beginning of the game, Norwich were the brighter of the two sides as they looked to take an early lead. With 67% possession, three shots and three corners in the first twenty minutes, it was the kind of start Sam Allardyce would have expected and he would have been pleased to see Sunderland making more tackles (four to none), winning more aerial battles (eight to six) and having a couple of shots themselves. It showed that despite The Black Cats allowing efforts from Jonny Howson and Dieumerci Mbokani, they were keeping up their intensity to try and keep Norwich from having any further opportunities. Fabio Borini dragged a shot just wide of the far post after a free kick from deep was put into his path by Jan Kirchhoff, a nice tidy piece of play despite a worryingly low successful pass success rate of 48%.
After getting through the first twenty minutes unscathed, Sunderland improved their play in the fifteen minutes that followed. They were now completing more passes and the possession was evening out, but that didn't stop them almost putting the ball into their own net. Matt Jarvis centred the ball after skipping past Patrick van Aanholt and Younes Kaboul's interception forced a good reaction save from Vito Mannone. It was noticeable just how deep Sunderland were playing at this time, as even Wahbi Khazri was found operating in Sunderland's final third as Jarvis went past him before taking on van Aanholt.
The resulting corner from Mannone's save saw the goalkeeper called into further action, as headed clearances from Kaboul and Borini saw the ball fall kindly to Martin Olsson, whose long range drive was well tipped over for yet another Norwich corner. Only 27 minutes were on the clock and Norwich had already had five corners, with Sunderland having none b you feel Sam Allardyce wouldn't be too concerned, knowing the likes of Kaboul, Kone and Kirchhoff would be able to deal with the majority of the crosses coming in. It was telling that visitors made twenty four clearences in the first thirty five minutes alone, eight coming from Kaboul and six from Kone.
As Sunderland grew into the game, so did Lee Cattermole. Continuing to play in a more advanced role that he has became accustomed to at Sunderland, Cattermole pounced upon some sloppy Norwich play, won a fifty-fifty with Ryan Bennett and played a good long ball out to Fabio Borini. As Borini crossed into the box, Cattermole made a well timed run to get on the end of it but couldn't get his shot on target, as Bennett did will to put him off. It was very encouraging to see Cattermole starting and almost finishing a move like that though, it was exactly what was needed from him when playing higher up the pitch.
In the final ten minutes of the first half, the trend continued of Sunderland slowly but surely seeing more of the ball. They only had 3% less possession than Norwich during this period and showed more attacking intent by having a shot more than the home side. That intent would be rewarded as they punished The Canaries not putting them to the sword early in the game, as a well worked counter attack saw The Black Cats given a penalty.
Be it fluke or skill, Jan Kirchhoff's headed clearance from just inside the box fell kindly to Fabio Borini whose first instinct was to release Jermain Defoe down the right hand side. Getting to the edge of the box and drawing a couple of defenders towards him, Defoe was able to lift the ball over to Borini who ran into the space at the far post. Norwich hadn't been able to organise themselves quick enough and as Borini brought the ball inside, he was met by the studs of Martin Olsson and referee Andre Marriner had no choice but to award Sunderland their first penalty in almost six months. Ever the reliable penalty taker, Borini dusted himself off to send the ball past John Ruddy and into the goalkeepers right hand corner. It was a great strike and with only four minutes left until half time, Sunderland were able to take a precious 1-0 lead into the dressing room.
Sam Allardyce made one charge at half time, taking off Wahbi Khazri for Duncan Watmore. Khazri had failed to make an impact on the game, having no shots, failing to take on any Norwich players and his pass success percentage was the lowest of all the Sunderland midfielders at 57%. Two tackles showed Khazri was making a defensive contribution but after being booked, for a bad challenge on Gary O'Neil, he was going to be walking a tightrope in the second half had he remained on the pitch. The introduction, and return, of Watmore would give Sunderland further pace when they broke forward, something that would be vital as the looked to hold onto, and possibly extend, their lead. The England Under-21 international would also provide a similar work rate to Khazri and would offer ample protection to Patrick van Aanholt.
In the first fifteen minutes of the second half, Norwich threw everything at Sunderland as they looked to wrestle back control of the game. The Canaries had a huge 71% of the possession during this stage and had four shots, including a 25 yard drive from substitute Nathan Redmond (on for Robbie Brady), which bounced off the post, only three minutes into the half.
Yet again though, Sunderland would punish Norwich for their wastefulness. Sebastien Bassong dallied on the ball in the middle of the pitch, which gave Jan Kirchhoff the chance to rob him of the ball. With Fabio Borini making a run down the right, Kirchhoff wasted no time in feeding the ball to him and a quick cross found Jermain Defoe's outstretched right foot at the back post. Pandemonium in the away end, despair around the rest of Carrow Road as two goals in twelve minutes had given Sunderland total control.
After the hour mark, Sunderland became content to sit back on their two goal advantage and Norwich continued to dominate possession. The home side saw 79% of the ball between sixty and seventy minutes and had their own penalty claim when Younes Kaboul brought down Dieumerci Mbokani. It wasn't given but it didn't dishearten a Norwich side who saw a flurry of chances cleared off the line. Lee Cattermole, who was by now dominating the midfield, cleared a trickling Mbokani shot and two minutes later was called into action to head the Congolese strikers effort off the line. That header only went as far as substitute Wes Hoolahan and he drove the ball towards goal but it was again cleared by Cattermole, who was becoming the scourge of Norwich. It was beginning to look like Sunderland's day and they almost made it 3-0 as Duncan Watmore and Jermain Defoe broke two-on-one, but some poor decision making allowed the chance to peter out.
Another Sunderland substitute saw another player making a return from injury, Sebastian Larsson replacing Yann M'Vila. Even though there had been plenty of endeavour from M'Vila, it wasn't a performance to remember from the loanee who continues to struggle to rediscover his early season form. With Larsson on, Sunderland could expect him to chase down everything as the game went on and legs grew tireder.
Things were looking as comfortable for Sunderland now as they had done all afternoon. Norwich still saw most of the ball, but Sunderland were matching them for chances. Duncan Watmore was played through by Jermain Defoe but he took the ball too far wide in his attempt to round Ruddy and the ball rolled out for a goal kick. A quick Norwich free kick presented Nathan Redmond the chance to have another shot from distance but his high rising effort was comfortably tipped over by Vito Mannone. Despite the home sides effort, they appeared to by running out of steam as Sunderland made four tackles and won three aerial battles between seventy and eighty five minutes, showing how their intensity levels showed no signs of dropping.
As the game looked won, Sam Allardyce relieved the legs of Jan Kirchhoff for John O'Shea. Norwich had switched to a 4-4-2 in the last fifteen minutes, when Cameron Jerome replaced the ineffective Stephen Naismith, so with no Norwich player operating directly in the hole it was understandable to introduce another centre half rather than a midfielder.
Looking comfortable and confident, Sunderland were given a little more freedom by the advancing Canaries as Patrick van Aanholt marauded down the centre before being challenged by Sebastien Bassong. The lose ball was picked up by Fabio Borini who exchanged passes with Duncan Watmore and tried to centre the ball before it was, again, intercepted by Bassong. Norwich again failed to clear though and Bassong was tackled by van Aanholt which allowed Larsson to slip in Watmore, who wasn't tracked as he ran into the box. Watmore made John Ruddy commit by taking the ball wide, put the shot away and sealed the win for Sunderland. 3-0 and three massive points were making their way back to Wearside.
This was the performance from Sunderland that many have thought was just around the corner. A game where they were solid in defence and took their chances going forward. Only three shots on target and no corners may make this sound like a smash and grab but it was very good away performance from The Black Cats. Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff absolutely dominated the midfield, with Kirchhoff making five tackles (the most of anyone on the pitch) and Cattermole being a constant pest when not in possession. It was arguably Cattermole's best performance of the season and certainly his best since playing a more box to box role, as he pressed well and looked more comfortable in getting forward. As people started to call his position in the starting line up into question, Cattermole will have silenced a few critics and those three clearances off the line showed just how on top of everything he was.
I feel like I'm repeating myself every week when it comes to Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone but they just keep looking like an excellent centre half pairing. Both players barely put a foot wrong and their excellent positioning and reading of the game meant that they only had to make two tackles between them (both from Kone). It was in the air where both players shone though, Kaboul winning eight aerial duels and Kone becoming victorious in four, the Norwich forwards may as well have been statues. The fact that Dieumerci Mbokani and Steven Naismith were barely noticeable is very much to theirs and, in the case of Naismith, the midfield's credit and both centre halves can celebrate a second clean sheet in three games. Vito Mannone can also look back on the game fondly as six saves and four claims showed how in command he was at Carrow Road.
With positives radiating around the team after this win, it was good to see the goals shared between three forwards. Fabio Borini had endured some awful luck in front of goal lately but his constant effort was rewarded today, as he confidently buried the penalty and his cross was perfect for Jermain Defoe to get the second. Against Leicester, Defoe had a game to forget but you could see how desperate he was to put that right against Norwich as his heatmap showed how much ground he covered. Defoe worked the defence, ran the channels and put in the kind of performance defenders have nightmares about, he earned his goal.
Jermain Defoe's heatmap which demonstrates just how lively the striker was
Then there's Duncan Watmore, whose return to fitness could not come at a better time as he reminded Sunderland of just what he brings to the side. The Roadrunner was always an outlet to play a direct ball to, using his pace to immediately put the Norwich defence under pressure and his intelligent running led to him grabbing his second goal against Norwich this season. I was a massive contrast to when he scored against The Canaries at the Stadium of Light, as Sunderland desperately needed to avenge that early season disaster. They put it right and put their fate back into their own hands.