The biggest surprise of the day was the team news, as Gibson, Rodwell and Larsson started across midfield, with Borini playing in a central position alongside Defoe and Didier Ndong only on the bench. In recent games the role supporting Defoe has been given to Ndong, with Borini and Januzaj in wider positions and Larsson and Gibson sitting in midfield.
Even with the tactic of moving Borini alongside Defoe, Ndong’s omission is hard to fathom. While still raw, Ndong provides an energy and intensity that Gibson, Larsson and Rodwell simply cannot match. Even if Ndong were to be played on the right of a narrow midfield - a position occupied by Larsson against Burnley - this is not a position he is unfamiliar with, having played there for Gabon and Lorient in the past.
Moyes’ quotes on Monday morning, however, explained the reasoning behind Ndong’s omission.
I decided I wanted Jack and Gibbo together. I thought the game might suit more Britishness in the middle of the pitch.
Leaving aside the fact that this does not explain the inclusion of Swedish Seb Larsson, while Darron Gibson is Irish, the principle of ‘Britishness’ - which Moyes has mentioned several times when discussing his vision for Sunderland’s future - is neither tangible nor meaningful. It is a vacuous statement, offering nothing more than a soundbite.
What even is Britishness in football? And does Moyes think you have to be British to possess it?
Football is a global sport, so of course you don’t have to be British to possess certain footballing qualities and attitudes. I have never thought that Ndong would struggle to play in a scrappy game of football and get stuck in against a team like Burnley, which is what Moyes was presumably implying. That Moyes thinks invoking ‘Britishness’ to explain the decision to omit statistically one of our best midfielders, should tell you all you need to know about how contradictory and aloof he is.
Moyes’ explanation for Khazri’s continued absence is also baffling, stating that he loses the ball too often and doesn’t score or create enough. Given that Khazri only gets ten minutes at the end of games, I would say his sparse goal return is unsurprising. With Fabio Borini boasting one goal and no assists and Adnan Januzaj no goals and three assists - yet still keeping him out of the team - criticism of Khazri’s limited contribution as reason for his omission raises eyebrows. Furthermore, his decision to drop Ndong looks even stranger in the context of his criticism of Khazri’s ball retention, when you consider that Ndong boasts the highest pass accuracy of our current midfield options.
In any case, Ndong’s energy and ability to retain the ball makes him our best midfielder currently available, something that is more important than a bit of ill defined ‘Britishness’. Since Van Aanholt left, we have missed an outlet to take possession of the ball and move us quickly up the pitch. Oviedo, though defensively superior, was very poor in advanced positions on Saturday, misplaced several key passes and does not move forward with the same intent and speed. Though still not at van Aanholt’s level, Ndong offers us energy and a bit of pace with which to move forward, but also the intensity to win the ball further up the pitch.
We have seen David Moyes with options available to him on many occasions this season. Saturday was another example of him having a relatively simple selection choice and getting it wrong. His management of Khazri means we have spent most of the season with a talented, creative and useful player restricted to cameo appearances, while his £8m centre back Papy Djilobodji is not even trusted to replace a seemingly crocked John O’Shea in the closing stages. Add Ndong to this bench and we had £30m worth of talent warming up on the sidelines, £21m of which are Moyes’ signings. When playing against a team like Burnley with substitutes like this, surely we cannot keep blaming a lack of options or quality in our failure to win games in this league?
In terms of the game itself, we were extremely lethargic and careless in the first half, with Gray holding the ball up well and Barnes guilty of missing a guilt edged chance. Our best chance of the half came from a corner routine, with the ball played to Gibson on the edge of the box, who hit a curling effort just over the bar. Burnley looked extremely well drilled and unlikely to make mistakes, whereas at times we looked nervous, hesitant and particularly vulnerable from corners.
All in all it was a scrappy and drab affair, with neither side possessing the necessary quality to punish or consistently test the others weaknesses. The more the game went on, Burnley seemed quite willing to accept the draw. With a healthy points haul already on the board and a majority of home games left, Burnley were understandably quite happy take a point into their games at fortress Turf Moor.
We meanwhile failed to score for the sixth time in seven games and for a 13th time in the league this season - a league high. Burnley, like most teams, know that if you stop Defoe, you stop Sunderland. Defoe’s failure to have a shot in the game, either on or off target, is concerning given our reliance on his goals. The team look genuinely unsure of how they are meant to build attacks and what style of football to play. After seven months, most of which have been without Victor Anichebe, one would have thought a viable plan may have been constructed and stuck to. The failure to buy a target man in January now looks to be a fatal one.
Despite his post-match protestations to the contrary, I thought Moyes' set up was quite negative given our current plight and Burnley’s poor away record. Though he played Borini alongside Defoe, the midfield selection and the decision to omit Ndong and Khazri - and then wait until the 74th and 78th minute to introduce these respective players - shows just how scared David Moyes is of making a positive change. Even though we improved in the second half and we missed several big chances, including a howler from Billy Jones, I felt a draw was on balance a fair result, given the clear chances Burnley created and missed.
Of course we could have won, but we simply didn’t deserve to.