David Moyes is clearly a man set in his ways. I imagine that he wakes up at the same time every morning and pours himself the same brand of instant coffee, in the same mug, before leaving for training at his usual time of 7.58am. “Not so early that I’m in a rush, but early enough to miss most of the traffic” thinks Dave, as he smiles the smug grin of a man who knows that those extra two minutes, before 8am, means he doesn’t miss a single second of the radio news bulletin. He turns on the ignition of his Range Rover Sport, recommended to him by Phil Neville, and away he goes.
Moyes is predictable in more ways than one. In footballing terms, his Sunderland transfer record has shown that he’s a man who knows what he likes. What he likes is Britishness, and if that Britishness stems from Everton circa 2008 then he’s absolutely cockerhoop. He also bloody loves a 4-3-3 formation and you can get out of town if you think he’s changing that for anyone.
Come two o’clock on Saturday, when the team sheets were revealed at The KCOM Stadium, we saw the usual signature moves from the Sunderland manager. They don’t come more British than Billy Jones at right back and they don’t come more late noughties Everton than Victor Anichebe. The midfield however, was neither. It was young, it was different and it was, dare I say it, a little bit exciting.
Now it comes to something when you think that a midfield of Didier Ndong, Jason Denayer and George Honeyman is exciting - it shows just how little excitement you’ve had over the last nine months. It’s like a woman who has recently given birth and hasn’t been able to have a drink for the entirety of her pregnancy making a lukewarm Budweiser seem like a taste sensation. So while the midfield trio that faced Hull wasn’t exactly a fine wine or an exotic craft ale, it was at least something refreshing on the tastebuds.
We’ve witnessed Didier Ndong play well in an awful side this season but this was up there with one of his best showings. For all Hull didn’t do enough to press the Sunderland midfield and put them under pressure, Ndong was superb at dictating possession and made more passes than any of his teammates. Alongside him, George Honeyman showed there was more to his game than simply “running around a lot”, showing class and maturity on the ball and completing 88% of his passes. The most defensive of the three was Jason Denayer. He was calm and tackled well, putting in a committed performance, much to the credit of the young loanee who is soon to depart Wearside.
It’s safe to say that this midfield trio probably won't be starting the first game of next season in the Championship - you could argue that you wouldn’t want it to either. However, it’s the type of midfield that we’ll need. For the sake of argument, let’s replace Denayer with the leadership and experience of Lee Cattermole, giving the midfield the Britishness Moyes desires, in a way that will benefit the team. Should he stay, Didier Ndong is one the players the manager should be building the team around. Ndong will have learned a hell of a lot from this season and the kind of time he got on the ball against Hull will be the norm for him next season should we be pushing higher up the table.
So that’s two of your three sorted. You’d probably be looking at a new signing to take the third spot, someone with some creativity. I would agree but let’s not forget, the Championship is gruelling and you need a big squad to compete -which is exactly why Honeyman’s display was so important. With Cattermole and Ndong, you’ll need someone matching their energy levels, pressing high up the pitch, retaining possession while looking to be creative with it. Is that something you can honestly say about Darron Gibson or Jack Rodwell, with any conviction?
Lynden Gooch has certainly done more than Honeyman to earn a place in the first team squad next season and had it not been for injuries, its safe to assume that he would have featured far more this year. As I said though, we’ll need all of the options we can get in the second tier and if the Beekeeper can match the enthusiasm of Ndong - whilst also ironing out some of the kinks in his game - David Moyes' squad will have another solid option in the middle.
Moyes deserves credit for being bold with his midfield selection on Saturday. Yes, the pressure was off with relegation being confirmed, but to select two 22 year olds and a 21 year old was somewhat admirable. Hopefully this is a sign that he’s breaking his routine.