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Ndong Shines In Solid SAFC Display: Talking Tactics

Sunderland’s year began with a spirited 2-2 draw at home to title chasing Liverpool - it was a much needed reaction to the debacle that was Burnley. Our analysis highlights the importance of Didier Ndong, looks at Sunderland’s narrow play and a switch to an asymmetrical looking system.

Sunderland’s players provided their manager with the perfect tonic to erase the New Years Eve hangover that was the drubbing at Turf Moor. A fine team performance saw Moyes’ men take a valuable point from a strong Liverpool side, thanks to Jermain Defoe’s brace of penalties.

In the midfield, Sunderland were strong and effective. The returning Jack Rodwell put in a good shift for an hour, giving hope he can fill the void created by numerous injuries but it was his central midfield colleague that truly stood out. Didier Ndong was arguably the best player on the pitch in a game he’d needed to be a big presence in.

Breaking up Liverpool’s play and not allowing them time on the ball would be key to Sunderland taking anything from this match and Ndong did all that and more. The Gabon international made more tackles than any other player, with six, and also made the same number of interceptions. With more touches than any other player in red and white, it showed just how much responsibility Ndong was taking and his confidence was being displayed even further up the field. It was his dribble into the box that earned Sunderland their first penalty and just a few moments later, his run off the ball allowed Defoe to get through one on one with Simon Mignolet, where he really should have put The Black Cats ahead.

For such a young player who is still adapting to the Premier League, it was a superb performance from Ndong and easily his best since arriving on Wearside. Just like in the game at Anfield a few weeks ago, Ndong was on a mission to cover every blade of grass and his work rate off the ball was outstanding. It’s a shame he won’t be able to build on this display, as he’ll be on international duty for The African Cup Of Nations, but it’s still a huge positive that he’s going into his hiatus on the back of a great showing. Hopefully Gabon crash out at the earliest opportunity and we can have him back in our midfield as soon as possible.

Sunderland v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

After Victor Anichebe pulled up with a hamstring issue against Burnley there was a heightened sense of intrigue over how David Moyes would line the team up. Without a big presence up front, Sunderland would be without their main outlet and without someone to hold up the ball in the opposition half. There was attempts to free Defoe with long balls over the top but the likes of Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan were often comfortable in sweeping such passes up.

Sebastian Larsson moved onto the left wing to accommodate Rodwell in the middle, and whilst it was unusual to see Larsson in such an unfamiliar role it was a fairly sound logic. Larsson isn’t the type of player to just stand with his hands on his hips, hugging the touchline and not tracking back, so his defensive work allowed Patrick van Aanholt to push forward as normal. With Donald Love playing a more reserved role on the right, it gave the defence a good balance, as cover was always available for Van Aanholt if he’d gone on a marauding run. Furthermore, with Fabio Borini on the right flank, he too would offer a similar work rate to Larsson and wouldn’t give the Liverpool wide men much time when in possession.

Alterations in the second half further underlined Moyes’ wish to have a more asymmetrical line up. Javier Manquillo replaced Jack Rodwell, with Sebastian Larrson moving into the middle to partner Didier Ndong and Fabio Borini switching the the left wing. So with the right now being operated by two right backs, the emphasis on that flank was to obviously to defend, not that Manquillo didn’t try to have an influence going forward. On the other side however, Van Aanholt was still attempting his trademark runs from deep, to give Sunderland some attacking joy. With Borini ahead of him, a natural striker, it was important that the left wing focus on attack was balanced out by the rights desire to defend.

Maybe signing all of those right backs in the summer wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Sunderland v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

As previously mentioned, Sunderland were often trying to seek out Jermain Defoe with more direct passes but he did get sufficient support from Adnan Januzaj. Sunderland spent the game playing rather narrow and compact, understandable given they needed to press Liverpool as much as possible. That did allow the team to try and benefit from the narrow formation in an attacking sense too. A look at Sunderland’s players averages positions shows just how much of the game Fabio Borini spent in the middle, so there was an aim to make up for the loss of Victor Anichebe’s presence by getting players such as Borini as close to Defoe and Januzaj as quickly and as often as possible.

Januzaj, playing in the hole behind Defoe, had the license to drift and looked far more effective in a free role rather than being shackled out wide. There’s been many times where Januzaj has, quite rightly, been criticised for his lack of work rate but that’s not an accusation you can level at him here. Along with Defoe, he pressed the Liverpool defence constantly and never stopped trying to make it difficult for them to play out of their own half.

When in possession, the enigmatic loanee looked dynamic, dangerous and was unlucky not to win Sunderland a penalty, with a clever flick that struck the arm of Emre Can. Against Watford, Januzaj looked just a good in the same position and while he still needs to start contributing a little more, it looks like he’s now found a fitting position in this Sunderland team.

Sunderland v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

You could have been forgiven for fearing the worst ahead of Liverpool striding into town. The defence was a shambles against Burnley, so many fans weren’t too confident about keeping one of the leagues best attacking sides at bay. Conceding from two set pieces was disappointing and is a worrying trend for Moyes’ Sunderland. Both Dejan Lovren and Daniel Sturridge had too much space when Sturridge flicked in the opener and Sadio Mane had acres of space for Liverpool’s second.

However, the back line still looked far more resolute than they did on New Years Eve. John O’Shea constantly talked Papy Djilobodji through the game and gone was lack of communication that was Sunderland’s downfall just a few days ago. When Liverpool tried to break at pace, The Lads were organised, difficult to break down and generally made it difficult for the visitors. It does make it frustrating that a couple of poor goals were conceded but there was definitely an improvement that will hopefully be carried into this Saturday’s FA Cup 3rd round tie.

A huge amount of credit should go to Vito Mannone as well, who made 13 saves. It looked like he’d put a disappointing previous performance right out of his mind as he played with the same confidence being showed by the likes of Ndong and Januzaj. He couldn’t do anything about either goal and one save in particular, where he got off his line quickly to close down Daniel Sturridge’s angles, was especially pleasing.

Sunderland v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

I keep referring to the Burnley game but, with most of us expecting a defeat against Liverpool, it was all about giving the supporters a reaction. Something to believe in, simply. Even had Sunderland lost that game, many would have still admired the performance and been pleased with the way the team applied themselves. Just like when Burnley beat Liverpool earlier in the season, Sunderland had less than 30% of the possession so a solid team performance was crucial to taking any points at all. Every player knew their job, no one hid or shirked responsibility and that was rewarded.

If Sunderland are to stay up, they’re going to have to start winning games like this but performances like that give you cause for optimism. David Moyes may not have many options and may not be able to strengthen his squad this month but at least the players he does have available look up for the fight.