Well, it happened. You didn’t dream it. It really happened. Sunderland beat Crystal Palace 4-0 away from home.
This season we have become used to witnessing a pathetic capitulation in an important game. For only the second time this season (since Hull at home) the implosion didn’t happen to us.
I have been critical of Moyes’ tactics at points this season. He has been too negative at times, left his substitutions late, and stuck with under-performing players for too long. But he got it absolutely spot on against Palace on Saturday.
We’ve stumbled upon a 5-3-1-1 formation that means Defoe is no longer isolated and our wing-backs can provide attacking intent. It worked well defensively against Spurs and Moyes stuck with it against Palace. In my opinion, this left him with three key decisions: whether to bring in Oviedo for Manquillo, whether to bring in Gibson for Rodwell, and whether Borini should be dropped.
Firstly, Oviedo had one of the best debut performances I’ve ever seen. He had Zaha “literally locked up in a bottle” according to the ever-erudite Ian Wright. But it’s easy to see what he means. When you consider we sold the feckless Patrick Van Aanholt for 14M and brought in Oviedo for a fraction of that fee, it looks like an inspired signing (provided Oviedo can stay fit).
Secondly, Moyes had to decide if Gibson was ready to start, with Rodwell the most likely central midfielder to lose his place given his inconsistent form. Again, Moyes made the right call and Rodwell was allowed to break the curse that had hung over him for thirty-eight games. When he got injured after playing pretty well for fifty-three minutes, Gibson was able to come on and help see the game out (and get much needed match time).
Lastly, and most importantly in my opinion, Moyes decided to drop Fabio Borini. Borini has easily been one of our worst performers this season. He looks a shadow of the player we had in his first spell at the club and he’s even stopped grafting for the team in recent weeks. He has offered Defoe no support at all. Finally, Moyes had the gumption to drop him and bring in Adnan Januzaj as a replacement.
Januzaj – a player who has also underwhelmed this season – gave his best performance in a Sunderland shirt so far with two assists and much improved hold-up play. He provided the link between the rest of the team and our star-man Jermain Defoe and fully justified Moyes’ decision to start him. This was a tough call by Moyes and he deserves praise for it (just as he deserves criticism when he gets it wrong).
On the other hand, in my opinion, Big Sam’s tactics handed us the game on Saturday. Like Moyes, he had gone for a 5-3-1-1 against Bournemouth in midweek and stuck with it for the “six pointer” against us.
This cost Palace the game.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved Big Sam when he was our manager. He seemed like he really “got the club” and I was devastated when the FA took him away from us. But I can’t help thinking that some of our fans look back at his time at the club with rose-tinted glasses. There were times when he got it wrong - like the Everton away game and Watford home game for example. He was by no means perfect.
By choosing to play a 5-3-1-1 on Saturday and therefore match up with us tactically, Sam Allardyce sacrificed the devastating impact of Palace’s many wide-players. Even Zaha was frequently forced inside and left with no space by the excellent Oviedo. And without any midfield width, they seemed bereft of ideas in the final third. They also left three centre-backs to deal with lone-striker Jermain Defoe, something they were unable to do.
It’s not hard to imagine what problems they might have caused us had they stuck to the 4-2-3-1 shape they’ve used frequently this season. You need only look at the reverse fixture at the Stadium of Light for evidence of that. Our capitulation in that game was brought about by their wingers terrifying our full-backs and delivering cross after cross that we couldn’t deal with.
Benteke has scored more goals against us than any other team in the Premier League. He is one of the most dangerous strikers to deal with when it comes to defending crosses into the box. By opting for a 5-3-1-1 formation and taking away Benteke’s service from out wide, Big Sam sacrificed Crystal Palace’s biggest attacking threat.
Ultimately, both teams played the same formation on Saturday. Our 5-3-1-1 looked solid defensively and efficient going forwards; their 5-3-1-1 looked ill-thought out and helped us achieve our biggest and most important win of the season. The difference was stark.
Or maybe our performance on Saturday had nothing to do with tactics. Maybe it was a direct result of Jack Rodwell’s challenge on Dembele in midweek (a video I must have watched several hundred times).
Perhaps we owe our resilient performance against Spurs and our lethal performance against Palace to Jack Rodwell’s moment of Cattermole-esque inspiration. That’s certainly something I never thought I’d say!