Calmness on the ball saw Sunderland through
The biggest take from the game last night was undoubtedly the influence of Sunderland’s central three, who arguably gave the most dominant midfield performance seen by a Sunderland side so far this season.
Going into the match I fully expected Gillingham to give us a good game in the middle, particularly when viewing the height and presence of some of their players. Despite being a relatively average team by League One standards, their midfield is resilient at best and I was fully expecting the battle to be won or lost depending on how we fared against the big lads in blue.
But, what we saw was the complete opposite - Gillingham, like most teams who visit the Stadium of Light, sat with ten men behind the ball in a bid to frustrate us but what they didn’t do was incessantly press our midfield, which seems strange when you consider how often we struggle to dominate in games even against poor teams just because we aren’t particularly great at winning the second balls.
This meant that Grant Leadbitter, George Honeyman and Lee Cattermole were able to play the type of game that comes most naturally to them.
Cattermole in particular was excellent, and he breezed through the occasion whilst enjoying the fact he was allowed to influence from a more advanced position. Catts struggles to get about the pitch in the same way he did as a younger man, so when a team presses he usually struggles, but having been allowed plenty of time and space by the away side he gave arguably his best performance of the season.
Even when Gillingham got themselves level twice we never panicked. The only long balls were deep, central ones from Leadbitter, who has the ability to thread the ball through the eye of a needle - I have no doubt that Will Grigg will continue to benefit from that over the course of the season.
And, with a solid base behind him, George Honeyman was able to play in his favoured role as the link man between the central players and the wingers - it wasn’t a perfect performance from the Sunderland captain, but a relatively influential one and he deserves as much credit as the rest for continuing to try and push the team up the field.
Honeyman has many critics but I’m not one of them, and I have no shame in admitting that - I like players who always want the ball and aren’t afraid to take risks when we’re struggling to carve open opportunities, which is why I’d always have him in this team when fit.
We’ve seen too many players over the years who go into hiding when you’re looking for them to take some leadership on the field, and I think Honeyman and the other two men he played in midfield with last night all showed desire and calmness on the ball - the main reason why I feel we never lost control of the game.
Fan patience helped pave the way
Sunderland’s home support has been the subject of debate over recent weeks on social media and in the press room, with some suggesting - rightly or wrongly - that the moans and groans during games have affected the performances on the pitch.
Whatever side of that debate you fall on, I think it’d be fair that last night there was a slightly different, more positive feel around the ground. Even when Gillingham got themselves back in the game, it didn’t feel like the crowd were sat waiting to turn on the players.
In fact, it was the complete opposite. The supporters around me in my seat were certainly much calmer than that, got behind the team and cheered vociferously - and that calmness was reflected in the performances of the players on the pitch.
It never felt like we wouldn’t win that game, even at 2-2.
So whilst Sunderland’s support has been put under the microscope with regards to negativity in recent games, I think it’d only be fair to highlight that the 28,000 Lads fans in the ground last night deserve a bit of credit for sticking with the team when the pattern of the game wasn’t necessarily going as planned for a brief period.
Defensive worries again
If I’m going to pick at anything, it has to be our defence again.
Both goals we conceded last night, from an organisational perspective, were very poor.
Jimmy Dunne has struggled since he signed from Burnley, and last night I felt his inexperience showed once again. Tom Eaves is having the best season of his career, and the experience of the Gillingham forward showed when up against his younger competitor.
Dunne has all the tools to be a very good defender, but I sometimes wonder whether we actually have anyone experienced enough to guide him through games.
He’s not looked comfortable when paired with either Jack Baldwin or Tom Flanagan, and while I expect Jack Ross to stick with him, it feels like his inclusion at the minute has been detrimental to the team.
Some fans are calling for Alim Ozturk to be given a chance in his place, and I’d personally agree. Ozturk has looked good every time I’ve seen him bar that Charlton performance at the start of the season, and I think he’s been harshly overlooked whilst Jack Ross has desperately tried to find out what his best central defensive pairing is.