With most expecting an unchanged side from the one which drew at Newcastle, it was quite a surprise to see Jack Rodwell make way for Lee Cattermole. Rodwell had been showing encouraging signs during his spell in the starting XI and had offered a decent outlet going forward, a duty which Cattermole had looked uneasy with. Regardless, it would be the Teessider who alongside Jan Kirchhoff and Yann M'Vila in the middle of Sunderland's midfield.
The back five remained the same for the third consecutive game with Vito Mannone in goal, Patrick van Aanholt and DeAndre Yedlin in the full back positions and Lamine Kone partnering Younes Kaboul in the centre. Sam Allardyce didn't tinker with what looked a potent front three against Newcastle, as Wahbi Khazri, Fabio Borini and Jermain Defoe all retained their places.
The formation lined up as a 4-3-3, becoming more of a 4-1-4-1 when not in possession.
West Brom shaped up in a similar formation to the home side, with three central midfielders and a lone striker. Whilst Solomon Rondon occupied the number 9 position, he could expect Saido Berahino and ex-Sunderland man Craig Gardner to cut inside from the wings.
A fairly narrow looking Baggies side was filled with three combative central midfielders in Claudio Yacob, Darren Fletcher and Sandro. The quality and passing ability of Fletcher would see him play slightly higher up than his fellow midfielders, as he would be looking to be the player that began West Brom's attacks.
In defence was another former Black Cat, Jonny Evans who partnered his fellow Northern Ireland international Gareth McCauley at the heart of West Brom's defence. Another indicator of how narrow the visitors would be playing was shown in their full back selection of Craig Dawson and James Chester, two players whose first choice position would be centre half.
In goal and completing the Albion team, was England international Ben Foster.
Going into this game, Sunderland felt like this was one they would have to win after three consecutive draws. Therefore, they could expect to have the majority possession and play on the front foot, against a West Bromwich Albion side who would more than likely be sitting back to play for a draw. With 39 points on the board, Tony Pulis' side have all but guaranteed their Premier League status so a draw at the Stadium of Light would be seen a decent result and would take them to the fabled 40 point mark.
If Sunderland were to control the game, they'd be looking for Jan Kirchhoff to perform the same tricks he did against Newcastle United. The German dominated the midfield last time out with his excellent tackling and neat passing starting many a Sunderland attack. To give Kirchhoff a little more creative freedom, this may have been the reason that Big Sam opted for Lee Cattermole ahead of Jack Rodwell. Given how physical West Brom's midfield are, Allardyce may have seen Cattermole's enforcer like playing style more suited to this game. Yes, Cattermole may not give Sunderland the same option as Rodwell when going forward but Cattermole's presence could potentially allow Kirchhoff to maraud further up the field to try and unlock the West Brom defence.
As previously mentioned, the visitors would be playing quite narrow with players like Craig Gardner (a central midfielder by trade) on the right wing and, essentially, four centre halfs making up their back four. It's not been unusual for Tony Pulis to line up his team in this fashion, this season and it's been a selection choice that has frustrated sections of the Baggies supporters. If they were to play so narrow though, Sunderland would be hoping for their quick, attacking full backs to get forward as much as possible, whilst Borini and Khazri made runs into the centre.
The game began fairly evenly, with the possession almost being 50-50 in the first 20 minutes, but Sunderland created the better of the chances as Jermain Defoe forced a good save from Ben Foster with an effort reminiscent of Jamie Vardy's goal for England against Germany. The chance stemmed from good work down the right hand side, with Younes Kaboul unexpectadly driving past James Chester to cross the ball towards Defoe. It may have been their full backs that Sunderland were expecting to give them additional attacking support but Kaboul showed that this was an area they could cause problems from.
Crucially in the opening stages, Sunderland were making more tackles than West Brom. In the first half an hour they made five to West Brom's one, in a variety of area's, as Lamine Kone made two with Jan Kirchhoff, Patrick van Aanholt and Wahbi Khazri all making one each. It was important that Sunderland were doing this at this stage in the game because West Brom were still edging them for possession but The Black Cats success at winning the ball back and being more purposeful with their passing, was seeing them have more shots on goal.
Another sight of goal arrived for Jermain Defoe, as all three of Sunderland's central midfielders pushed forward. The advancement of Kirchhoff, M'Vila and Cattermole allowed Patrick van Aanholt and Wahbi Khazri to exchange passes on the edge the area, before Defoe turned and dragged his shot wide of the far post. The way Kirchhoff brought the ball forward started things off and M'Vila instinctively dropping into the full back area gave van Aanholt the go ahead to join in with the attack, rather than just be an observer. It was a sign of Sunderland's fluidity and was something they'd have to keep up.
It wouldn't be long before more quick thinking from Sunderland saw Defoe given another chance to open the scoring. DeAndre Yedlin was tripped by Claudio Yacob and Khazri's quick free kick released Yedlin down the right hand side, who laidd the ball back to the Tunisian. The flashed in cross from Khazri was the perfect height for Defoe but the striker couldn't make a connection with the ball and West Brom were spared.
The home side were ramping things up as the first half went on, they were enjoying the majority of possession in the last fifteen minutes and they kept up their superb tackling. With eight tackles, from seven different players, alone it showed how determined Sunderland were becoming and how high their intensity was. That tempo led to further chances, one coming from Lee Cattermole after he was excellently played in by Wahbi Khazri. The Sunderland captain found himself in a decent amount of space after Khazri found him, but a heavy first touch allowed Ben Foster to close down his attempted dink.
The second half saw Sunderland looking to pick up from where they left off in the first. They were now in total control with almost 70% possession the opening 15 minutes of the half and they were taking advantage of West Brom's sloppy passing, as only 40% of the visitors passes were successful in this period. Six shots in this time matched their flurry of six corners, with Jermain Defoe once again being thwarted after Gareth McCauley blocked his effort and Jan Kirchhoff's burst through the defence could only be stabbed straight at Ben Foster.
Corner after corner saw Sunderland trying different ways to unlock the Albion defence. Wahbi Khazri sent in an excellent ball to the back post which was well dealt with by the West Brom defence but he was also trying to work the ball into the box by taking a couple of them short to Patrick van Aanholt. Despite one of these shorter ones failing to make it into the box, it did lead to a powerful, rising drive from Fabio Borini who was the latest player in a red and white shirt to be denied by Foster.
Four minutes later would see Borini go close again, this time after a good cross from DeAndre Yedlin. The cross was an awkward height for the West Brom defenders but perfect for Borini, whose late run into the box was very well timed but his well struck shot was just wide of the near post. West Brom were now starting to sit deeper as a draw was within their grasp and it was up to Sunderland to keep up their tempo if they were to snatch a win.
Between 65 and 80 minutes, it was now starting to feel like West Brom had weathered the storm and that Sunderland had missed their opportunity to get the vital goal. The Black Cats only managed one shot on goal during this passage of play and the Baggies took back some control as the possession become closer (55% to 45% in Sunderland's favour), they forced a couple of corners and won more aerial battles.
Sam Allardyce couldn't afford to not have one last push forward though and in the last ten minutes he made his first (and only) substitution, Dame N'Doye replacing Wahbi Khazri. N'Doye would play closer to Defoe, with Sunderland's width now only being offered by Yedlin and van Aanholt as Kirchhoff, Cattermole and M'Vila took turns in covering for the full backs.
The change led to Sunderland taking back their hold on the game and they produced six shots on goal in the final ten minutes. Once again, Fabio Borini would test Ben Foster, but the former Manchester United goalkeeper pushed away his side footed shot after a good touch away from Jonathan Leko allowed him the space for the effort.
On 88 minutes came Sunderland's best chance of the afternoon. Yann M'Vila spotted Jermain Defoe on the edge of the box and his first touch took him away from his marker and into the box. After one more touch to steady himself, Defoe sent a shot to the near post and the Stadium of Light waited for the net to bulge. This wasn't Defoe's afternoon though, it was Ben Foster's and the goalkeeper saved with his right foot.
The frustration was compounded a few minutes later when Dame N'Doye managed to get the ball in the net, only to be denied by the assistant referee's flag. Lee Cattermole had swung the ball towards Yann M'Vila whose shot towards the far post bobbled up into the air and was sent back towards goal via Fabio Borini's scissor kick. It was marginal but it was the correct decision as N'Doye was fractionally off and could count himself unlucky that he didn't manage to get himself just back onside after the scramble.
N'Doye's offside goal would be Sunderland's last chance and they'd have to settle for a point for the fourth game running, in a game where they should have taken all three.
It wasn't through lack of effort that Sunderland didn't win this game and, overall, it was a decent performance. But after the Crystal Palace capitulation, the surrender at Southampton and not killing off Newcastle, Sunderland need wins rather than just positive performances.
Twenty two shots on goal to West Brom's three tells it's own story, especially when the visitors never forced Vito Mannone into a save. Sunderland only got seven on target though, which was never going to be enough when they were up against a goalkeeper in such fine form. Ben Foster was undoubtedly the best Albion player on the pitch but he perhaps should have been tested more than he was, given the amount of shots Sunderland had. It still encouraging to see Sunderland continuing to have a lot of shots on goal though, a common occurrence since the end of January. Hopefully in the last seven games it will see The Black Cats keep up their goalscoring form, something they haven't usually had a problem with this season.
It can't be ignored that Sunderland have finally managed to keep a clean sheet either, something which Sam Allardyce will see as a huge monkey off their backs. It's been just over four months since they last kept the opposition at bay and a lot of credit is due to Younes Kaboul, Lamine Kone and Jan Kirchhoff who all had very good games against West Brom. Completing the full ninety minutes for the first time in his Sunderland career, Kirchhoff was yet again the best player in red and white as he pulled the strings for most of Sunderland's play and made some vital tackles, whilst Kone and Kaboul looked strong and assured at the back. Sunderland may not be a great team at the moment but at least there's a good, competent spine emerging that is making them consistent and difficult to beat. It's time to take that consistency and turn it into a run of wins.