It says a lot that we went into this game with a lot of fans thinking Sunderland could get something.
Two divisions apart last season, by rights Watford should be outperforming the Lads by some distance – yet they started the day a point behind a team that has so far faced pretty much each game head on, and so were a decent bet for at least a draw against their more resourced hosts.
The desire to take things to the opposition has served Sunderland well, bringing us to a point where it is easy to forget we were in League One just a few months ago and could still on occasion struggle to break sides down.
This term though it has only been the Middlesbrough game, when Ross Stewart’s late withdrawal was an enormous mitigating factor, that things have felt a little disjointed and since promotion fans have learnt they can be a bit more pragmatic anyway when things do not go as hoped.
Thinking the Lads can win, get a result and demanding that they do so are two separate things. Every dropped point in League One could feel like a disaster, such was the need to get out of the division, but now that the club is a bit closer to its natural level and people can see there is a robust plan in place, the pressure is not so apparent. A defeat no longer must be viewed as the end of the world, and whilst effort is always expected there is some wriggle room in other areas.
There is a clear understanding that the squad is very young and could therefore blow hot and cold, and whilst a repeat of the lovely football seen at Reading would always be welcome, there was something relaxing about building up to a match where a good showing was a possibility yet a loss of iffy performance wouldn’t necessarily point to something more concerning either. This was still only Tony Mowbray’s fourth game as head coach after all, and the staff and players have shown they deserve to be cut some slack whilst the learning continues.
In the end, we got to see both sides of the coin at Vicarage Road. This wasn’t vintage Sunderland by any stretch, but they responded well to both the goals they conceded and fully deserved the levellers when they came. Well taken and a consequence of getting several bodies in the box, both of Sunderland’s goals capitalised on some shoddy defending from the Hornets and sparked wild scenes in the away end. They came on the back of the side cranking up the pressure in the minutes before, and I don’t think anybody could argue that they were anything other than deserved.
Aji Alese has looked comfortable during his first two Championship starts and could weigh in with a few more goals based on his presence and the composure shown just before half time for his first senior goal. It was also good to see the goal line technology work as intended – I cannot think of many instances where it has been needed in Black Cats fixtures, but in comparison to VAR continues to be one development that does work smoothly. As for Jewison Bennette’s well-drilled finish, it followed some eye-catching turns on the wing and will hopefully help him settle in the UK; there’s a pocket of young lads on Wearside now that are trying to adapt to a new country, language and style of football but so far they seem to be handling it well and deserve credit for it.
Although he has been here for over a year now, you could even throw Leon Dajuku into that bracket. He hasn’t had much football of late either, and that is why it might be a little unfair to go in too hard on him for pulling a very good chance wide shortly after his introduction. The pace he showed just to get in on goal is an asset that will help pins teams back and as is the case with Luke O’Nien, whose own goal put Watford ahead for the second time, these things will happen when matches become stretched.
Speaking of O’Nien, the low sun seemed an issue throughout the afternoon and could well have played a part with his header. It seemed to prompt a surprisingly lacklustre reaction from the home crowd but was no doubt a sore moment for a player that has been in excellent form and whose shrewdness often goes unnoticed, but can come in very handy for a side that is so green in parts. He undoubtedly has the mental strength to get over it, but I’m not so sure about Watford’s frame of mind – from what I have seen they’ve needed to rely on individual moments rather than good team play in recent weeks and things could have been very different had the Lads got their noses in front.
In contrast to the mood at Sunderland, there have already been some rumblings of discontent and going behind could very well have caused things to spiral further for the hosts. Losing two points will do little to improve matters but their performance highlighted just why there is so much positivity right now within the Red and White Army, who have instead been watching a side that does possess its own creative outlets but marries them up in a good team unit. A strong work ethic is at the heart of this, and when on the front foot it was noticeable how many times possession was won back.
This is even more impressive considering the current injury list. The absence of Stewart and Ellis Simms does impact some aspects of play, but it shouldn’t be forgotten either that at the other end of the pitch Mowbray is having to make do without first team regulars Dan Ballard, Dennis Cirkin and Bailey Wright. Edouard Michut is also out with a minor niggle too I think, and whilst he is an unknown quantity still, if he is anything like the other new recruits we are in for a treat.
Giving all of these players minutes is going to be a balancing act in the long run, but it can be done. I had seen one Blackburn fan suggest that the new gaffer, whilst flexible in his approach from game to game, does sometimes struggle to influence a match once it has started; there has been little evidence of this as yet however, and the five substitutions made on Saturday all came on and did exactly what was hoped of them. This is after only a few weeks at the Academy of Light too, and now there is an international weekend on the horizon the head coach will have even more chance to assess his options.
The mood within the camp should be good during the break. Sunderland have already faced most of the more fancied Championship sides yet have equipped themselves well and are comfortably placed despite playing one less home fixture than many of those around them. This is where everybody needs to remain level-headed though, because whilst most would have gladly accepted a midtable finish in 2022-23 the good start could lead to one or two now eyeing a Play-Off push.
Football is about wanting to win obviously, but just as a poor result shouldn’t spark an inquest it would be a shame if we got ahead of ourselves and allowed the longer term hopes to be forgotten. For now, we can just enjoy the ride – four points on the road represents a very good few days and whilst Sunderland are not the finished product watching them head in that direction should be fun.
The Watford game was high on drama and at points became very end to end. There were a couple of decent penalty shouts for the Lads, and Jack Clarke produced a wonderful finish that although correctly chalked off could have gone the other way on a different occasion. Proving the decision to stay in the area after Reading rather than endure additional travel was perhaps a reason for the side being able to push right up until full time, and a first away draw of the season was the least they deserved.
Any bets that were laid on it ending all square proved to be a canny move.
My Man of the Match: Patrick Roberts. A real threat and seems to be revelling in his return to the starting XI, although Sunderland do now have several unsung heroes they can rely on as well.