Good lord, we’ve missed Kone and Ndong. Sunderland deployed the same system against Tottenham as they did against West Brom but the injection of quality, provided by the two men who’ve been away on international duty, gave it a chance to succeed.
The back three had a much better balance with the experience of John O’Shea, the enthusiasm of Jason Denayer and, of course, the quality of Kone. Often the organiser, it will still be difficult for O’Shea to keep the unpredictable Papy Djilobodji in check, as well as aiding the young Jason Denayer. Replace Djilobodji with Kone though and you have one player who can be left to just play his game. It can’t be underestimated how well Kone reads things and he rarely lets himself get drawn in to rash challenges or misjudges situations. All of that was evident against Tottenham and it looked like the Kone of last season.
Despite Spurs swarming forward on numerous occasions, the organisation of the back three never wilted. They were superb at getting their blocks in, never let Harry Kane win anything in the air and intercepted the visitors clever through balls expertly. This calmer back three has to be what Moyes sticks with for as long as possible and they need to be given a run of games together, even if things go wrong in The Black Cats next outing - just please, please, please don’t let any of them get injured.
Just pipping Kone to the Man of The Match award for me was Didier Ndong. There may still be a few rough edges on the Gabonese international but his class is there for all to see. In Sunderland’s team, against much stronger opposition, it’s so important to not give the ball away and take it off the opposition as much as possible. By never losing possession, completing 94% of his passes and making more tackles than any other player (6) Ndong fulfilled that role and more. Perhaps he is often a bit too safe in possession but with the addition of Darron Gibson and the return of Lynden Gooch, Ndong may be about to gain some midfield colleagues who compliment his game perfectly.
Not that Ndong didn’t look to make things happen though. The rain may have sadly flattened the midfielders barnet but he still looked to be as dynamic as possible with the ball at his feet and completed the joint highest amount of dribbles in the Sunderland side. With Ndong winning possession, quickly recycling it and carrying it forward, Sunderland’s midfield has now been given a renewed dose of much needed energy, at a crucial time.
It would be harsh not to praise the other men in the middle though, Jack Rodwell and Sebastian Larsson, who turned in their best performances of the campaign. Larsson gave a “classic Seb” performance by chasing everything, challenging for everything and just generally being a nuisance. The highlight of the game was provided by Rodwell though, booting Mousa Dembele about 10 feet up in the air in a perfectly timed tackle. Seriously though - that was exactly the kind of intensity we’ve needed to see from Rodwell for ages and some Cattermole like tackles will certainly endear him to the supporters.
What was sadly telling for Sunderland though, was a lack of a target man. The chances Sunderland created in the first half were, if we’re being honest, quite fortunate, as Spurs failed to deal with rather simple long balls over the top. Credit to the likes of Defoe and Borini for doing the much needed work to fashion a shot on goal, but it was hardly an ideal service for both men. It made it even more frustrating when Borini didn’t give Vorm much of a test with Sunderland’s best chance, on a difficult night for the Italian.
Borini did at least show more of his trademark work rate by making five tackles, but going forward, he flattered to deceive. He was certainly the weak link in the Sunderland side and this 3-5-2 doesn’t seem to suit him, as he doesn’t really fit in any of the roles. With no other senior strikers though, both he and the team may have to persevere for a little while longer.
The bluntness in Sunderland’s attack really showed in the second half when the Spurs defence started comfortably dealing with attempted long passes, aided by their gap between midfield and defence becoming significantly reduced. It meant that the likes of Toby Alderweireld could deal with the minimal aerial challenge posed by Defoe, knowing the second ball would be picked up by a midfielder, such as Victor Wanyama.
This attacking approach meant that Defoe only had 16 touches throughout the game, with his 7 in the second half all coming in the middle of the field. That’s understandable against this kind of opposition, defending had to be were the focus was, but we could have caused more problems with a big physical presence alongside Defoe. Since David Moyes didn’t sign one this window and with Victor Anichebe injured for the foreseeable, The Lads will need to find an alternative way of approaching their attacks, rather than hoping lesser opposition will just simply give them more chances.
This time last year, Sunderland’s surge to safety was built on performances such as this. Tight defending and plenty of energy in the midfield, they just need their attack to click and they may just have a chance.