Playing the occasion superbly
After a timid display during the corresponding fixture at the Riverside, we needed to ensure that we maintained our discipline and composure in what was always going to be a highly-charged atmosphere, and the players did so with aplomb.
Aided and abetted by a bizarrely dismal and lifeless Middlesbrough display, we turned in a performance that was full of confidence, creativity, and controlled aggression - driven in no small part by a raucous level of backing from the home crowd.
No silly challenges were made, we didn’t give the referee any major decisions to make, and the players didn’t let the magnitude of the occasion faze them, which is testament to their growing maturity.
It was obvious that the lessons had been learned from last Saturday’s painful defeat against Swansea, and it’s a safe bet that the suspended Luke O’Nien was as pleased as any Sunderland supporter as his teammates did exactly what we hoped they would.
Michut shows his quality in emphatic fashion
When Corry Evans went down injured early in the first half, there might’ve been a collective groan from the home supporters as we faced the prospect of losing our captain, but we needn’t have worried.
Forced into a change, Tony Mowbray turned to the on-loan PSG midfielder to fill the breach, and he did so superbly.
Michut has shown flashes of his talent since his arrival on Wearside, but this was the kind of game that felt like a real breakthrough, and one that’s bound to give him a real boost as he seeks to establish himself in our midfield.
The young Frenchman was hugely influential, spraying the ball around with confidence, keeping the play moving nicely, and also putting in a shift of impressive off-the-ball running. He was afforded the time and space to play his natural game, and it was a joy to watch him controlling things so effortlessly.
Aji Alese is back…..and how!
There are no two ways about this: we absolutely picked West Ham’s pocket when we signed Alese last summer, and on the evidence of performances like this, he’s looking like one of the Sunderland transfer steals of recent times.
Alese was nothing short of a colossus on Sunday. He was dominant in the air, borderline immovable on the deck, and he thundered into tackles like a man with a point to prove as he marked his return to the starting eleven in superb fashion.
He was also willing to get on the ball and drive forward whenever possible, and that gave us an added dimension in attack.
His second half exit with what looked like cramp wasn’t entirely unexpected and he’s obviously still working his way back to full fitness, but when he gets there, we’re going to have one hell of a player on our hands.
Some overly-elaborate play leads to frustration
In the second half, we regularly got into promising positions on the edge of Middlesbrough’s box and attempted to work openings via some neat one and two-touch passing- with Amad and Patrick Roberts at the heart of it.
However, the moves often broke down before we were able to find the killer pass and we were forced to recycle the ball and start again, which was slightly frustrating to watch.
Jack Clarke in particular was guilty of being wasteful at times, and his familiar reliance on the ‘cutting inside onto his right foot’ skill was on full display yet again.
As we saw against Swansea, Clarke can deliver an accurate cross with his left foot, and I’d love to see him do it more often. He needs to know that we’ve got players in the box, and they’ll make the runs that can lead to goals- as long as the service is good.
We can match any team in the league when it comes to neat, incisive football, but there’s no harm in taking three passes to find an opening instead of trying to take ten. Sometimes, simplicity is just as deadly as intricacy.