The numbers don’t tell the full story
Tranmere may be way down the League One table, and we might have battered them earlier in the season, but it counts for nothing when the playing surface is terrible.
The ‘grass’ at Prenton Park was most definitely a leveller on Wednesday night, and there was no chance that we were going to see a decent game of football on a pitch that is, quite frankly, an utter disgrace. The sand and bobbles slowed down any attempt to play the ball on the floor, and instead we were forced to revert to a more basic game - a 1970s style of football on a 1970s style of playing surface.
This is where perhaps Sunderland’s recent improvement in fitness comes into it. You can well imagine that we would have lost that game in October or November, because having to run hard, battle for every loose ball and throw yourself into tough defensive situations is taxing on the body. In the first half it felt like a feeling out process, and that we were struggling to get to grips with the situation, but as with most recent performances we upped the tempo in the second half, and managed to take the one good chance we had.
Sunderland’s xG of 0.47 was slightly lower than Tranmere’s at 0.51, showing just how tight and low on attacking quality the game really was. We had just one shot on target, which was of course Charlie Wyke’s goal from close range after Chris Maguire’s free kick.
As you can see below, the pitch clearly affected Sunderland’s ability to pass the ball. On a far superior surface and bigger pitch we attempted 539 passes against Doncaster, whilst against Tranmere we attempted just 364. We attempted far more crosses and passes into the penalty box in the game on Saturday, though that’s not an indictment of our play - we simply had to adapt and play to the conditions on the night.
Power the ‘water-carrier’
Credit must go to the player who, on the night, was my man of the match - captain for the day Max Power was absolutely superb in a game where we really needed him to be.
I’ve not been overly convinced by him since he came to Sunderland but I have to admit that he’s really improved over the last month or so, and is slowly growing into his role as captain.
People have only started to come around to how important Jordan Henderson is as the ‘water-carrier’ in Liverpool’s team - fact is, all decent sides at all levels need a central midfield player who is prepared to do the dirty work, the unheralded stuff, for the greater good of the team. Isaac Hayden is another, at Newcastle, starting to get some deserved recognition for the way he plays this role.
Kalvin Phillips at Leeds, Wilfred Ndidi at Leicester, Joao Moutinho at Wolves, Tiago Silva at Forest - 2020 is becoming the year of the hard-working midfielder.
The importance of the water-carrier is no different when you look down the leagues, and Power has definitely taken it upon himself to be that player in Sunderland’s midfield.
Defensive solidity is the key to success
Defensively we looked relatively solid too, bar one or two hairy moments when getting used to the pitch early in the first half. Bailey Wright was good on his debut, and I enjoyed the way he threw himself aggressively into the aerial battles. We’ve been lacking a couple of players who enjoy sticking their head in where it hurts, and it was good to see him ordering his new teammates around - he certainly didn’t ease his way in and made it clear he wants to stake a claim for his spot in the side.
Overall, it’s a pleasing result. We might have lost that game six weeks ago and being able to win in the manner we did shows how far we’ve come in a short space of time.
We need to take the three points and clean sheet and move on to the next one - Portsmouth will surely present us with a more difficult task in what could be a massive game in terms of the promotion race. They may be in decent form themselves, but I bet they’re wary of playing us and finding Sunderland difficult to break down. It should be a good game!