A long injury lay off for Vito Mannone meant Jordan Pickford was handed his third Premier League start and ahead of him in at centre half was a return to Lamine Kone, amidst questions over his Sunderland future. Kone was partnered by Papy Djilobodji at the heart of defence, Patrick van Aanholt started at left back and there was a debut for Javier Manquillo on the right, who arrived on loan from Atletico Madrid just two days earlier.
With Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff still unavailable, David Moyes had limited options for his midfield and went with his obvious choices - Jack Rodwell, Steven Pienaar & Lynden Gooch with Rodwell the deeper of the three. Ahead of them were an attacking trio of Jermain Defoe, Fabio Borini and Adnan Januzaj.
Since taking to the dugout at St Mary's, Claude Puel has displayed his fondness for the diamond formation and he stuck with it for the visit of Sunderland. The Southampton back four had a familiar look to it though, with Virgil van Dijk & Jose Fonte in the middle, with Matt Targett and Cedric Soares as the full backs.
At the top and bottom of the diamond were Dusan Tadic and Oriol Romeu, respectively. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Stephen Davis completed a narrow midfield, as Saints would look to their full backs and Tadic's drifting to provide their width. Nathan Redmond would also be just as mobile as Tadic, with their main focal point being Charlie Austin in the number 9 position.
The Fluidity Continues
It was interesting to watch how Sunderland's shape shifted so much during the game. As we've come to expect with Fabio Borini, he will often shift into the middle when Sunderland are attacking but that was complemented really well by Adnan Januzaj occupying a more free role than he did last week. This allowed Borini and Januzaj to get into more dangerous positions, as they weren't grounded to static areas of the pitch, which meant Jermain Defoe came close to slipping in unnoticed on a couple of occasions during the first half.
With Jack Rodwell screening the defence and having additional support from Stephen Pienaar, Lynden Gooch was able to attempt to further bolster Sunderland's attack. The young Californian may not have made as much as an impact as he would have liked at St Mary's but the idea of this style of play was still good to see. A more keener and meaner operator in that role and you could be really onto something.
Both sides basically started the game playing diamond formations with two attackers assisting out wide when possible and their full backs pushing forward. Sunderland kept Southampton guessing though and didn't stay rigid to their formation. Southampton had a flurry of shots at goal during the same period Sunderland made their first two changes (Borini off for Duncan Watmore and Pienaar off for Jeremain Lens). Recognising the threat, Moyes switched things to a packed a five man midfield to make sure that Southampton found it difficult to infiltrate the penalty area but allowed Lens, Januzaj and Watmore to go further forward again once the storm was weathered. So we saw three different formations from Sunderland during the game, a 4-3-1-2 diamond, A flat 4-5-1 and finishing with a 4-2-3-1.
The Back Four Is Starting To Take Shape
Say what you like about Lamine Kone at the moment, and many have, but his performance in this match showed exactly why Sunderland must hold onto him. We were reminded of his excellent reading of the game, sniffing out danger before it happens so he doesn't have to hurry into tackles, making him a calming influence across the back line. If he does stay then there's potential for him to form a good partnership with Papy Djilobodji as both complement each other well. The new arrival from Chelsea has been rushing into challenges rather rashly but hopefully Kone can help him keep his head, as Djilobodji made some excellent passes and completed 50% more than his centre half partner.
In the wider positions, Patrick van Aanholt showed experience far beyond his years as he never baulked at Southampton targeting the Sunderland left early in the game. Five interceptions, the second highest of any player on the field, showed how his ability to spot trouble is developing and it's not too surprising that David Moyes handed him the captains armband for the mid-week League Cup game against Shrewsbury Town. Credit must also go to to Javier Manquillo, who looked threatening going forward and never put a foot wrong at the back. A very promising debut from a player who has barely had chance to even train with his new teammates.
There's still some kinks to iron out but it's now looking like Sunderland have a solid defensive foundation to build upon. Hopefully it isn't disrupted any more than it has been.
The Value Of Experience
Everyone could see how Sunderland were being hampered by having to throw too many youngsters into their side against Middlesbrough, so it was no surprise to see Donald Love & Paddy McNair dropped to the bench for Javier Manquillo & Steven Pienaar. When Pienaar came on against Middlesbrough last week he looked far more assured than McNair, as you would expect given both players Premier League experience.
The former Spurs and Everton midfielder picked up from where he left off against Boro by rarely giving the ball away and taking some of the burden off the inexperienced Lynden Gooch. Pienaar's presence also allowed Jack Rodwell to just sit deep in front of the back four and not have to perform a box to box role, something Rodwell has looked far better at when playing for Sunderland. It won't be a signing that will set the world alight, and his time in the starting line up will decrease when other players are fully fit, but Pienaar looks like he could do what Bolo Zenden did for Sunderland during Steve Bruce's tenure. The man who has seen & done it all and a player you know you can rely on.
Keep On Rocking In The Free Role
Last week we saw Adnan Januzaj largely restricted to the wings, starting on the right and briefly switching to the left during the second half. It meant that Middlesbrough had him sussed during the second half and he was running on fumes in the final ten minutes. Handing him a free role though, initially starting in the number 10 position, allowed him to pick and choose his opportunities, look more dangerous and not become fatigued.
It was nice to see Januzaj using his dribbles to get the ball inside, instead of just taking the ball down the flank as well. The highlight was when he beat four Southampton players before Jose Fonte was forced to foul him, to win a free kick right on the edge of the box. It was very exciting and if he keeps showing that kind of ability, he can terrify any defence. That's not just to say he spent all of his game in the opposition half, he didn't shirk his defensive responsibilities either. In fact, another impressive piece of footwork saw him get out of a tight area on the left to bring the ball out of defence, a very valuable quality.
With a player as young as Januzaj, who is at something of a crossroads in his career, allowing him to just go out and express himself could be key to getting the best out of him. Moyes certainly knew how to get him shining before and the early signs suggest that will continue.
The Rodwell We Need To See More Of
One of the biggest questions amongst Sunderland fans is "will we ever see Jack Rodwell reach his potential." When David Moyes arrived, that changed to a more upbeat "maybe Moyes is finally going to get the best out of Rodwell." Against Southampton, Rodwell wasn't a world beater, but he put in an astute and confident performance in the deep lying midfield role. This, of course, was the position Rodwell played in when he first broke through under Moyes at Everton, so I guess we shouldn't be too surprised about his competence there.
It shouldn't go unnoticed that Southampton never managed to have a shot inside the box against Sunderland. Huge credit should go to the defenders for that but also to Rodwell, the player just in front of them. Always good in the air, Rodwell won four aerial duels as well as making five clearances to keep Saints at bay. One tackle and one block does, admittedly, sound less impressive but his sharpness off the ball was a big part of Sunderland's organisation. Good strength and calmness also saw him never get dispossessed, something Southampton can't say for their own men in the middle.
We haven't seen enough for Rodwell to keep this position ahead of Jan Kirchhoff, who should return after the international break, but this performance showed that he can still kick start his Sunderland career.
This was much better all round performance from Sunderland and arguably their best of the season. They were clever, strong and threatening throughout the game and restricted the oppositions chances. It says a lot for a side still missing important players that it took a goalkeeping error to deny them three points, away to side full of talent. You get the feeling that the team is growing and David Moyes is showing good tactical nous by getting a tune out of a team that isn't the finished product. The movement he'd instilled into his players allowed them freedom and expression and they're bolstered by a tighter looking defence and a midfield that, while needing some work, largely did what was required of them.
It'll be a tough game when Moyes faces his old club in a couple of weeks time but after what we've just seen, fans can feel a lot more positive than they did a week ago.