A New Year Brings New Hope
With a nightmare December now behind them, it was time for Sunderland to turn things around in January.
Results wise, they did just that, losing only one in four. Back to back wins over Aston Villa and Swansea gave The Lads a much needed lift and a draw at home Bournemouth kept the points ticking over. There was a set back in the 4-1 defeat away to Tottenham but, overall, there was still a noticeable improvement in the side with the goals that had eluded them in December now being more forthcoming.
Sunderland were looking exciting going forward at the start of the new year. Jermain Defoe had been making contributions throughout the season but January was the month that made Sam Allardyce sit up and take notice. A hattrick against Swansea and a brace against Aston Villa gave the manager real food for thought and perhaps it was now time for the team to be built around a man who could fire the team to safety.
Allardyce had agreed with comments that Defoe wasn't the kind of striker who could operate there on his own but his goals couldn't be ignored. If the manager could find a way to build around Defoe, whilst ensuring defensive stability, survival was a real possibility. The other goals in January all came from Patrick van Aanholt (albeit two taken away from him by the dubious goals panel) who was beginning to turn around his season, after a nightmare start.
Recruitment was going to be key to Sunderland retaining their Premier League status.
With clean sheets now becoming something of a rarity, Lamine Kone was brought into tighten up the defence whilst Jan Kirchhoff arrived to play in the deep lying midfield role - giving further protection to the defence. In the attacking positions, Wahbi Khazri came in to add some technique, flair and set piece ability and Dame N'Doye signed on loan, as Stephen Fletcher and Danny Graham departed.
Another notable departure was Costel Pantilimon, with Allardyce now preferring Vito Mannone over the towering Romanian. Jordan Pickford was recalled from a loan spell at Preston North End to deputise and veteran Steve Harper was signed on a free as third choice.
February & March - Hope & Heartbreak
It was now or never for Sunderland as the January window slammed shut and they hoped that the new faces would be able to make instant impacts in the relegation battle.
Against Manchester City, the early signs were good despite a 1-0 defeat. Lamine Kone and Wahbi Khazri made impressive debuts whilst Jan Kirchhoff recovered from a disappointing debut away to Spurs, by putting in a man of the match performance. The system used against City was a 4-1-4-1, with Defoe in the lone striker role and Kirchhoff sitting just in front of the back four. With Lee Cattermole and Yann M'Vila either side of Kirchhoff, it allowed Sunderland's full backs to accentuate their attacking abilities, knowing they'd be covered by the midfield.
From here on out, this would be the system we'd see Sunderland use for the remainder of the season. A further two games played and it looked to be the right way of going about things for Sam Allardyce, with a 2-2 draw away at Liverpool and 2-1 win at home to Manchester United. A big contribution was made by Wahbi Khazri in collecting those four points, assisting Jermain Defoe for a last gasp equaliser at Anfield and getting a goal and an assist against United. Set pieces certainly looked to be one of Khazri's best attributes - scoring directly from a free kick and whipping in a magnificent corner for Lamine Kone to head towards goal, before the ball found it's way in off the back of David de Gea. Kone was further demonstrating his worth with mean, commanding performances that displayed his great positional awareness and clever reading of the game.
A narrow defeat at West Ham, in Sunderland's final visit to Upton Park, was a disappointment but they made the home side work for it and on another day could have taken something from the game. If nothing else, Sunderland were now showing that they were hard to beat as teams struggled to break through a combative midfield which had a stronger looking defence behind them. The resilience of the Black Cats was further demonstrated when Fabio Borini grabbed a spectacular last minute equaliser against Crystal Palace, to draw 2-2, but it was a match of missed opportunities for Sunderland. As Jan Kirchhoff started to tire, The Lads grip on the midfield loosened as Palace went 2-1 up after being a goal down. That would set the tone for the games that followed.
Returning to the scene of their 8-0 defeat last season, Sunderland travelled to Southampton for another tough test against one of the leagues strongest sides. Jermain Defoe was surprisingly dropped, as Sam Allardyce looked to Dame N'Doye to hold the ball up front and also bring Fabio Borini and Wahbi Khazri into play. It didn't pay off and Defoe replaced N'Doye on the hour mark with the intention of, once again, proving that he's the man to be leading the line. With 85 minutes gone, Defoe did just that as he put Sunderland ahead and it looked like they'd be coming away from Saint Mary's with a valuable, and unexpected, three points. Just like they'd done against Crystal Palace, Sunderland sat far too deep, despite the hosts being reduced to 10 men just before Defoe's goal and Jan Kirchhoff's fatigue allowed Southampton to take control of the game.
With only seconds remaining, Virgil van Dijk fired in an equaliser and Sunderland were left shell shocked. It felt like they were letting too many points escape by not killing off games and by sitting too deep, something they'd need to change as time started to run out.
March ended with the Tyne-Wear derby and, as has became customary over recent seasons, it was one that would have huge bearing on the relegation battle. There were two big calls for Sam Allardyce to make going into this game - would there be recalls for John O'Shea and Lee Cattermole? Two players with bags of experience in games like this.
Neither man made the starting XI though, and whilst Younes Kaboul's inclusion didn't raise too many eyebrows, the preference of Jack Rodwell ahead of Cattermole certainly left some wondering. It was a game that had a similar outcome to the previous two, Sunderland playing excellently for the majority of the game but failing to deal a killer blow, sitting deep and conceding an equaliser. Jermain Defoe had given The Black Cats the lead and Jan Kirchhoff was bossing the game from the middle of midfield but, crucially, Newcastle were still in the game with the score only 1-0. History repeated itself as Kirchhoff grew tired and Sunderland lost all control, it was now becoming clear that Kirchhoff was arguably the most important player in the team or at least as important as Jermain Defoe.
When Kirchhoff was playing well, Sunderland were playing well and were in control. Not long before Kirchhoff had to be substituted, Newcastle grabbed an equaliser and the spoils were shared. It was the end of a three game run that had saw Sunderland go undefeated but also winless.
The Start Of It All Coming Together
After Sunderland had thrown away win after win, Sam Allardyce had started to bemoan his teams inability to keep a clean sheet.
Whilst the centre half pairing of Lamine Kone and Younes Kaboul were certainly making The Black Cats defence tougher and harder to break down, they had so far fell short of keeping the opposition out. The elusive clean sheet finally came against West Bromwich Albion, in a game Sunderland dominated but didn't have the required luck at the other end. For want of a more finessed word, Sunderland absolutely battered West Brom as they kept up their high amount of shots per game but they just couldn't find a way past Ben Foster - a decent performance, but Sunderland needed wins and their inability to take advantage of West Brom was compounded a week later, when they went down 2-0 at home to eventual champions Leicester City.
Due to Sunderland going two games running without scoring, fans were starting to call for a more attack minded midfield. The trio of Kirchhoff, Cattermole and M'Vila was being labelled as too defensive minded which was harsh - as Kirchhoff was often the one to start off Sunderland's attacks whilst Cattermole and M'Vila pressed high up the pitch when given the opportunity.
The presence of the three midfielders also allowed van Aanholt and Yedlin to get forward as much as possible and not be as easily exposed as they were earlier in the season, under Dick Advocaat. Sam Allardyce ignored the calls from the stands though and the team of Mannone; Van Aanholt, Kaboul, Kone, Yedlin; Kirchhoff, M'Vila, Cattermole; Borini, Defoe, Khazri remained unchanged - as it would until the Watford match on the last day of the season.
Sticking with a settled side that had been given a big injection of quality was vital over the five game period that saw Sunderland ensure their survival. A run of games that saw The Lads take 11 points from a possible 15, where they scored 10 and only conceded 3.
It was where both of Sunderland's two biggest strengths finally came together as a much improved defence showed just how good they were and the forwards kept up their part of the bargain. It began at Norwich, a match Sunderland had to win and clinical finishing ensured they did as they ran out 3-0 winners after three shots on target. Norwich may have dominated possession at Carrow Road but it counted for nothing as The Black Cats kept The Canaries at bay after the home side had 19 shots on goal - only 7 of them had to be dealt with by Mannone (or cleared off the line by Cattermole!).
At home to Arsenal, Sunderland may not have been as clinical as they were at Norwich - as Jermain Defoe was unlucky with a couple of chances - but they still couldn't be broken down as the game ended 0-0. It kept Sunderland in fight and their hard to beat style was earning them points which would be vital ahead of their trip to Stoke City.
In a hard fought game, where Sunderland failed to meet the standards of their previous two outings as they misplaced passes and struggled to bring Borini and Khazri into play, they found themselves 1-0 down as the game went into stoppage time.
still wouldn't be defeated though as Jermain Defoe once again came up with another big moment in his Sunderland career by first winning, and then putting away, a 93rd minute penalty. It may have been a frustrating afternoon at the Britannia Stadium, and a one that saw them fall back into the bottom three, but as long as they were taking points they weren't out of it.
Persistence Pays Off As Survival Is Confirmed
Going into the match against Chelsea, the focus had to be on keeping Guus Hiddink's men out of the game, as Sunderland were hoping to repeat what they did against Arsenal by stifling another side littered with creative talent.
If they could just get a little bit more luck going forward then a result was certainly on the cards. It wasn't a game that you can analyse too tactically I don't think though, as it was a game built on belief on determination. Sunderland refused to lie down, despite Chelsea twice taking the lead. Wahbi Khazri scored a stunning half volley to level the scores at 1-1 but The Blues immediately regained the advantage on the stroke of half time, after some adrenaline fuelled, clumsy defending gave Nemanja Matic the opportunity to slot the ball through Vito Mannone's legs.
The side Sam Allardyce first took over what have raised the white flag at this point but he was in charge of a totally different beast now. A couple of excellent Vito Mannone saves kept Sunderland in the game and they would make Chelsea pay for not putting the game to bed - something which Sunderland had been all too familiar with just mere weeks ago. Yann M'Vila wasn't giving the Chelsea midfield a moments rest at this point and when he pressed them into conceding possession, it allowed Patrick van Aanholt to advance into the final third to find Fabio Borini on the edge of the box. Borini's deflected shot levelled things for the second time but The Black Cats weren't content with just a point. On the opposite wing, just three minutes later, DeAndre Yedlin seized on some sloppy Chelsea play and sent in a low cross to Jermain Defoe. Two touches was all Defoe needed: One to bring it down, one to fire it in. 3-2 and Chelsea never looked like getting back into the game, as all three of Sunderland's starting forwards got on the score sheet to earn them the three points that turned the relegation battle on it's head.
Just like the games against Aston Villa and Swansea at the start of 2016, Sunderland had overcame some set backs during the game and outscored their opponent to win the match. In a brilliant second half performance, every player contributed - The defence keeping the likes of Diego Costa, Willian and Eden Hazard quiet for the mostt part, the full backs being the architects of both second half goals, the three central midfielders working tirelessly off the ball and never wasting possession, the forwards once again being clinical with their chances.
It dragged Sunderland out of the bottom three, meaning a win in their penultimate game at home to an out of form Everton would confirm their survival.
If they felt any pressure, The Lads certainly made it look easy and it was a true culmination of all their hard work. One of the best strikers in the division, Romelu Lukaku, was dealt with superbly by Younes Kaboul who put in one of the best defensive performances, of any player, this season. Kaboul's partner wasn't bad on the night either - as Lamine Kone grabbed a brace in a 3-0 win. The midfield were once again on song, as Yann M'Vila picked up from where he left off against Chelsea, by being classy in possession and working tirelessly without it. The loanee displayed exactly why he should by Sunderland's number one priority in the summer transfer window as him, Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff seemed to be in perfect sync with each other. It was quite fitting that Patrick van Aanholt grabbed a goal, a free kick to open the scoring, after the season he'd had. A terrible start saw the Dutchman vilified but hard work and excellent coaching from Sam Allardyce saw him turn it all around.
You could say that van Aanholt represented Sunderland as a whole - written off just weeks into the campaign and looking like all hope was lost.Just like the rest of the team, some excellent coaching had van Aanholt come out of the other side smiling, as survival was confirmed.
A second half of the season that only saw four league defeats and meant Sunderland would compete at the highest level, for the tenth consecutive season. It hadn't been easy and they'd had to work for it, but you can't say they didn't deserve it.
In the relegation battle Sunderland had the strongest defence, midfielders that worked the hardest, as well as having the quality, and the most dangerous striker. It may be easy for us to reflect like that now, with everything said and done, but it's true. We just have to hope the rest of 2016 carries on like this.
- Talking Tactics With Rory Fallow - End Of Season Special (Part One)
- Looking Towards The Summer Window - What Do We Do? Part Two: Attack
- Reflection: This Season Wasn't So Bad After All
- Looking Towards The Summer Window - What Do We Do? Part One: Defence
- Quick Kicks: Gav's Thoughts On Watford 2 - 2 Sunderland