Sunderland registered a vital 2-0 win today away against a Bristol Rovers side that threatened to harm our defence but failed to register a single shot on target.
The result leaves Sunderland in third place, two points behind Barnsley with a game in hand, and a feeling of renewed optimism and momentum following some shakey performances.
Jack Ross’ team continued their unbelievable hot streak of scoring from set pieces, with O’Nien’s opening goal coming against the run of play, and McGeady’s sublime second-half free kick sealing the win for the Lads.
Little was created from open play before Lewis Morgan’s solid cameo, and Charlie Wyke’s less-than-solid effort at converting three fantastic chances, but it’s safe to say no one would have minded this too much given the result.
The game started an entertaining, end-to-end affair, with both teams showing plenty of attacking intent in the opening minutes without truly threatening either keeper.
After the first ten minutes, momentum seemed to swing Rovers’ way, with the game taking on a rhythm.
Both teams played long balls from goal kicks and out of defence, and while Sunderland’s pacy forward line got some joy out of this, too often it turned into a game of head tennis that Rovers’ considerably more physical midfield won before stretching our defence with simple balls out wide that exploited the space James and O’Nien left behind them and highlighted the centre-backs’ lack of cover in the early stages.
Luckily, Sunderland were able to weather this early storm without conceding, and Bristol seemingly lacked the quality to punish us for the odd missed header or mistimed challenge.
Sunderland’s new found set-piece effectiveness proved vital, with the opening goal coming completely against the run of play. Leadbitter played a short corner to McGeady on the 25th minute, who fired a deep cross into the back post that Grigg volleyed across goal for O’Nien to convert with an easy tap-in at the post.
The goal alleviated the pressure, but didn’t change the pattern of play. In truth, the first half was one of little quality, and bar the goal Sunderland fans had little in the way of excitement.
McGeady, Watmore, and Grigg all showed bags of industry and a willingness to chase lost causes, but the fact none of them managed to register a shot in the first half was clear cause for a change of plan. Going in 1-0 up at half-time was an ideal situation for Jack Ross to give things a slight shake-up.
The team came out for the second half much more authoritatively, keeping the ball on the ground that little bit more without becoming slow or sterile.
Sunderland’s second goal came on the 53rd minute, again from a set piece. Aiden McGeady scoring an absolutely perfect free kick from an absolutely perfect position— right on the edge of the D following a neat attack that disoriented Bristol and led to a bizarre handball from Sercombe.
Bristol Rovers came close soon after Sunderland’s second from a corner, with Clarke-Harris scraping the bar with a header, but Jack Ross would have been incredibly happy with the way his players opened the second half.
Again the match settled into a rhythm that Sunderland were all too happy to play along to. We looked incredibly comfortable defensively, with Flanagan and Dunne winning everything in the air and showing a much improved performance.
Cattermole almost cost us a terribly judged back pass that went straight to Clarke-Harris, but Dunne was there to take one for the team and take him out to earn himself a yellow and give Rovers a free kick in an indentical position to McGeady’s up the other end. Fortunately it wasn’t taken with the same quality and McLaughlin comfortably watched it over the bar.
The best chance Sunderland made from open play came in the 82nd minute, when Lewis Morgan showed what he was capable of with a surging run down the right wing before pulling the ball back to give Charlie Wyke a golden chance from the penalty spot that was wasted by the substitute striker.
This was repeated again almost immediately afterwards, with the exact same run by Morgan leading to an identical chance for Wyke that went off target again, and you have to think Grigg would have converted at least one of these.
This was repeated AGAIN almost straight after the second chance, and once again Charlie Wyke failed to convert a fantastic ball from Morgan from the right. Grigg would have been beside himself on the bench at this point having come off for Wyke only ten minutes prior to Morgan’s fantastic creative streak.
DISCLAIMER: Player ratings are a wholly subjective number purely meant as an indicator for the fans who didn’t watch the match.
Jon McLaughlin, 6/10: Never tested. Comfortable throughout the game, but too often his kicks went straight out for a Bristol goal kick or gifted possession to the opposition.
Luke O’Nien, 7/10: Incredible work-rate, fantastic attitude, and of course scored the opener. Let down by a rash foul that earned him a yellow card in the first half, and at times was understandably poor in his positioning for a full back.
Jimmy Dunne, 7/10: Much better from him, looked like he’d maybe struggle again to begin with but put an early mistimed header or two behind him and settled into the game nicely. Let down by Cattermole’s backpass straight to Clarke-Harris, and booked as a result, but hard to blame him. A base to build from.
Tom Flanagan, 7/10: Like his partner, initially struggled with the runs of Bristol’s two strikers, and gave away some poor fouls, but grew into the game and communicated well with Dunne. Earned his clean sheet.
Reece James, 6/10: Had a solid but unspectacular game. Booked for a daft high tackle on Rodman that meant we had both full backs treading on eggshells.
Lee Cattermole, 7/10: It maybe shouldn’t work, but playing Cattermole and Leadbitter together in midfield has given us a sense of authority both on and off the ball. Kept things ticking over and put in a shift defensively, despite that awful backpass that could have cost us.
Grant Leadbitter, 8/10: Absolute class. Showed his control and technique in tight areas and played some quality diagonals that exploited Watmore’s pace in particular and stretched the opposition defence. Has great positioning defensively and when we’re on the ball, is always showing for it and giving an option. Constantly leading the team and communicating both in attack and defence.
George Honeyman, 7/10: Industrious captain’s performance. Tracked back plenty of times from his attacking midfield position to bail out the defence, as well as providing that vital pivot from midfield to attack.
Aiden McGeady, 9/10: Quiet in the first half, but played a lovely cross for the opening goal and showed his underrated work-rate chasing lost causes. Beautiful free kick for the second goal showed just how good he is, and had the beating of their full backs throughout.
Duncan Watmore, 6/10: Bags of pace, bags of energy, but just lacking that final ball. So often he made promising chances for himself and ended up with the ball in the final third, just to run it out for a goal kick. He needs time to reach his heights again, but he’ll get there.
Will Grigg, 6/10: Had little in the way of service, showed that he’s a clear upgrade from Josh Maja off the ball, but we’re still not playing to his strengths. Didn’t get a sniff and eventually replaced by Wyke.
(SUB) Lewis Morgan, 7/10: Not on for long but really showed his promise with three late runs and cut backs to Wyke that should have been converted. Definitely earned a start.
(SUB) Charlie Wyke, 2/10: Did little apart from missing three golden opportunities. Very poor.
(SUB) Max Power, 5/10: Brought on to close the game out, not long on enough to make an impression.
Man of the Match: Aiden McGeady