If two moments could be microcosms of last night’s game, it is beyond any doubt the videos of each of our goals, but not necessarily for the play itself. Look beyond that, to the apathetic reaction of Wahbi Khazri for the first, then Lynden Gooch’s fervent, lung-bursting roar as he scored his first senior Sunderland goal. Each poignant moment may prove to be the nadir and zenith in their respective Sunderland careers.
Last night, as we drove along the gridlocked A69 away from Brunton Park, all of my thoughts kept turning back towards these two players. For those of you who were there in the away end sat anywhere near the front row, you’d have probably heard me castigating Khazri. It wasn’t for his poor touch, nor giving the ball away incessantly throughout. Mistakes happen, and this is football. My problem was something more; his awful demeanour, atrocious work rate, and impervious attitude throughout.
Lynden Gooch, by complete contrast, is deservedly the man of the moment after playing well all night and chalking up his first senior Sunderland goal and assist, both skilfully delivered and achieved. Yet, just look at the way he celebrated when he scored the late winner; immediately turning and running towards the rapturous away fans, brimming with sheer delight and passion. This is a man who plays for the shirt, for the badge. This is a man I want to represent my team.
Dreamt this moment ever since I came to Wearside as a 10 year old boy and to get it in front of the away fans was so special! ⚪️ pic.twitter.com/4GFjpgFLzO— Lynden Gooch (@lyndengooch46) August 23, 2017
For the first 15 minutes of the game, I barely watched any other player than Khazri. I was intrigued to see how he would do on his first start for the Lads since Bury away in the last round. Yet, by the end of the game it wasn’t just Gooch’s girlfriend who looked at the young American in awe - 1,928 other mackems joined her in the away end yesterday night.
Khazri started the game relatively well. He linked up nicely with Gooch and Asoro in attack, hitting the side netting from a difficult angle. Though in reality, a player with his quality and ability should have buried the chance. Yet this became his only notable contribution to the game bar taking the vast majority of our set pieces. It wasn’t as if he struggled with the high intensity of the game, and nor has he been exactly overplayed nor fatigued in recent weeks; he simply could not be arsed. He may as well have been called Sadim, as everything he touched went to shit.
After spurning his early chance, Khazri sauntered around the pitch and barely ran for more than 5-10 yards, even to close down Carlisle players on the ball around him. Much of what he tried with the ball at feet simply did not come off, and this was because of his complete and utter lack of movement off the ball. How often under Sam Allardyce did we see the Tunisian constantly moving, finding space and asking to receive the ball in a dangerous position, ready to either recycle play or set up an attacking chance? None of that was seen last night.
Look at the video of Don Love’s goal from last night; throughout all of the build-up play he was merely camped in the corner of the penalty area, uninvolved. Then, when Love finished the chance off and as the other players celebrated, Khazri was undeterred, offering not even a simple physical reaction and proceeded to merely walk over and congratulate the youngster for his goal. For the rest of the game, he was essentially anonymous.
At the end, to his credit, he came over to the far corner of Brunton Park and warmly applaused and thanked the fans for making the short trip west. Lamine Koné, Didier Ndong and Papy Djilobodji merely walked straight down the tunnel, the only three to do so. Yet, what does this mean for Khazri’s future? It looked like a goodbye. The whole match from his perspective was a goodbye message on-the-pitch as he quite clearly doesn’t care nor want to be here anymore. He may yet stay, but it seems the best route forward is for Simon Grayson and Martin Bain to negotiate his exit from the club.
Gooch was also involved in the slick passing move that released Khazri bearing down on Jack Bonham’s goal. Yet, from this moment on he became more influential and was our main attacking outlet in the first-half. If we were to score, it was nailed-on to come from the young American.
After 24 minutes on the clock, he set-up Love for the first goal. After receiving the ball in the penalty area from the quietly impressive Bryan Oviedo, Gooch deftly passed Carlisle defender Mark Ellis with a step-over, before pulling the ball back from the byline to an onrushing Love who finished smartly. The two quickly embraced to celebrate, so evidently delighted to put the Lads 1-0 up, and it was nothing more than the pair deserved on the night.
For the next 10 minutes Gooch continued to pull the strings from his advanced role; having a quick shot from the edge of the box well-saved by Bonham, only to then set-up Joel Asoro with an impressive through ball. The Swede, disappointingly, could not convert his one-on-one and didn’t really look like scoring all night despite relatively impressing against a very crowded Carlisle defence. The shot, however, was very tame and he must vastly improve his composure if he is to get his wish of becoming a regular starter at Sunderland this season.
Gooch’s moment, though, was not to come until the eightieth minute on the clock. Didier Ndong – who controlled the game all night and put in a typically consistent, if unspectacular performance – received the ball midway through the Carlisle half. With very few options, he saw the late run inside of Gooch and played a spectacularly inch perfect pass to the on-rushing American, who curled the ball into the far corner and out of Bonham’s reaches. It was a wonderfully worked and thoroughly deserved goal, but arguably the best part of the night was that celebration.
Too often we see players wheeling away from the travelling fans when they score. Jermain Defoe’s late penalty at Stoke two years ago sits fresh in the memory, as an obviously irate Allardyce on the touchline implored (berated) him to run towards the away fans. Yet, with Honeyman at Bury, and Gooch last night, these young players with their performances, desire and work-rate are really building a rapport with our fans for the first time since Allardyce’s dance on the pitch at home to Everton.
I’d also like to give a special mention to Robbin Ruiter, who was unlucky for their penalty and pulled off numerous outstanding saves throughout, bossed his area and looked far more assured than Steele ever has. I’ve got nothing against Steele, but Ruiter has to be our number one for the foreseeable.
Granted, the game was *only* in the cup, and *only* against opposition much inferior to ourselves, but nevertheless, we’re still in the hat, got an important morale-boosting victory after our first loss of the season and done it all in 90 minutes after making ten changes. Job done.