It’s good to be back
First things first: whether you were in the Stadium of Light (eventually) in person, or watching or listening from home, how good is it to see the Stadium full of supporters again?
Football’s very little without fans – as we saw last season – and getting back to something approaching normal, from a matchday perspective at least – was a long time coming.
It’s such a critical part of our lives, and it’s been hugely missed.
Risk vs reward: a dramatic shift from conservative Ross and Parkinson
In football, it’s often easier to play it safe – on and off the field.
During the summer we’ve seen an approach in the transfer market that some may deem risky but will hopefully deliver more rewards than buying ‘average’ players, who Lee Johnson said in the week it was ‘easy to buy’.
This Sunderland set up seem willing to take greater risks than in previous seasons.
The selection of Dan Neil in particular at full back was a risky move. Wigan got a lot of joy in the first half down that flank, however, to criticise Neil too much would be unjust – I think most full backs would have had a tough time as Wigan focused much of their play in that area.
The reward from playing Neil there was also seen in the first half particularly. His passing range is beautiful and he added an additional dimension to Sunderland’s attacking play. He played some lovely balls in to find McGeady, and some great work won a dangerous freekick on the edge of Wigan’s box.
Of course, he’s not a long-term solution there – or even a medium-term one – but he’ll do a job there over the next few weeks if we need him too. And his passing performance will put pressure on Evans and O’Nien in the middle of the park.
The trust placed in Callum Doyle, too, is another sign of this. Doyle was superb – he played with a maturity far beyond his years and looks an absolute class act.
That willingness to embrace more risk is a form of bravery – and the response to the Wigan goal and the way we came out after half time typified this.
Last season, we would often crumble after conceding but yesterday we got back into the game quickly. Of course, who knows what would have happened if we hadn’t struck back immediately, but thankfully we’ll never know.
Last year was also characterised by a decent first half display before starting the second period slowly – and it was really pleasing to see us come out after half-time all guns blazing.
By coming out on the front foot we were able to nullify Wigan, and it earned us a second goal pretty quickly.
Balanced midfield provides platform for victory
While last season the team was purely set up for McGeady to feed Wyke, this team seems to be a completely different proposition. The display was what we were promised when Johnson took over, and it was pleasing to see a noticeably different approach to last season.
Crucial to the performance was the midfield. Corry Evans was everything we need in a midfield linchpin and captain – he passed the ball well, broke up play but, most importantly, provided a level of composure we’ve rarely had at this level.
Alongside him, Luke O’Nien complemented him perfectly. His all-energy performance pressed Wigan well, and he won numerous tackles – a superb one late in the game as Wigan advanced towards our box the standout. A player like O’Nien in midfield is vitally important – he gets the team up the field quickly and never stops.
At the top of the midfield, Elliot Embleton performed admirably – his touch is superb and he looks as if he’s certainly benefited from the loan spell at Blackpool. With Pritchard breathing down his neck, he’s going to need to keep that level of performance up.
After playing last season with a midfield that resembled Penshaw Monument, it was a joy to see a well-drilled midfield that complemented each other well.
Stewart and Gooch provide a new dimension up front
A quick one on a couple of the forwards, too. Ross Stewart’s touch and movement were absolutely superb, and his mobility added a whole new dimension to our attacking play.
He needs back up of course, but he looks the real deal and hopefully we can manage his development well over the coming months. Lynden Gooch, meanwhile, produced a 90 minutes he often threatens but rarely delivers.
Gooch is now an experienced player (and part of the new leadership group) and if he can produce this level of performance on a regular basis we’ll have a really good season.
Both of them were brilliant and caused Wigan no end of issues.
Could have been more – should have been more
A 2-1 scoreline meant a nervy end to the game (where the hell did the ref get so much injury time from, by the way?) and in truth we should have been out of sight.
Three or four goals wouldn’t have flattered us – Gooch hit the bar, Embleton and Stewart missed headers they should have done better with, and we had numerous other shots blocked.
It’s promising we created a decent number of chances – you’d always rather that than the alternative – and it’d be nice to convert a few more over the coming weeks.
Slight question marks remain over goalkeeper
One minor negative was the performance of Lee Burge.
We know he’s prone to pushing the ball back out into the danger area and that element of his game was still in evidence yesterday.
Fortunately, it didn’t cost us, but I remain unconvinced over Burge and would love to see a new keeper arrive before the deadline.
Patterson will surely get a chance against Port Vale on Tuesday and it’ll be interesting to see what happens if he produces a strong display.
Win worth far more than three points
One swallow doesn’t make a summer, as the old saying goes – but notching a victory against Wigan Athletic could be worth a hell of a lot more valuable than the three points at stake yesterday afternoon.
Yesterday felt like a critical game for the KLD/Speakman/Johnson era. After biding their time in the transfer market in pursuit of quality, the club has attracted a significant amount of criticism from sections of fans who would have preferred a few additional signings before the season’s opening day, particularly in the full back positions – as we all would.
Of course, we’ve been there before – signing players out of desperation rather than desire – and the club is taking (in my mind) a welcome long-term approach. But it felt we really needed three points yesterday to buy the club a bit of breathing space – that criticism would undoubtedly have intensified had the result gone against us, and would have made the club’s task all the more difficult.
Yesterday we saw a ‘new’ Sunderland – a team playing some stylish, purposeful and attacking football – and with a few carefully selected additions, we’ll hopefully be able to enjoy the coming months.
There’s a long way to go – but the signs were very, very promising.