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Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Hillsborough

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Editorial: At our potent best, Sunderland AFC of 2023 can be a match for anyone

Friday’s routine win over Sheffield Wednesday was illuminated by some exceptional attacking play, and that’s now one of the real trademarks of our team

Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

The raking, cross-field pass from Mason Burstow was inch-perfect, the take from Jack Clarke was almost equally so, and what happened afterwards was borderline unstoppable as Sunderland’s most potent attacker illuminated yet another Championship game.

As the winger drove into the wide open space ahead of him, Sheffield Wednesday’s defenders backed off, doubtless fearing what was coming next, and Clarke didn't disappoint as he cut inside and rifled a fierce shot beyond Devis Vãsquez and into the bottom corner of the goal.

Just like in any good horror movie, they knew what was coming and it got them anyway. When Clarke turns it on, he really turns it on, and this was simply brilliant.

That goal put us 2-0 up with barely ten minutes played, and from that moment on, it became an exercise in maximum reward for minimal effort. Clarke’s subsequent penalty ensured that the game was finished as a contest before half time, and after a frustrating loss to Cardiff, there was no hangover as we banked another three points.

One thing we were reminded of on Friday - and it’s something we’ve seen plenty of this season - is just how fluid, flexible and adaptable this Sunderland team is.

There’s skill and creativity everywhere you look, and it’s difficult to remember a time when we could call on so many talented footballers with the ability to unlock a defence or conjure a goal out of very little.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ben Roberts Photo/Getty Images

Granted, it wasn’t a full throttle performance over the entire ninety minutes, but it didn’t need to be. We did what we needed to, and winning games whilst expending as little energy as possible is no bad thing - especially this early in the season and with some big tests still to come.

Speaking to the BBC after the game, an unusually bullish Tony Mowbray expressed his desire for teams to ‘fear’ us, and seemed to be slightly peeved at a lack of additional goals in the second half.

However, with two big games to come this week, perhaps the boss could see the other side of the argument as well.

The ice pack taped to Clarke’s thigh was proof of the need to protect our key players wherever possible, but our slightly less devastating - if professional and efficient - second half performance shouldn’t overshadow a thoroughly satisfying night in South Yorkshire.

Some of the passing and movement on display at Hillsborough was exceptional, and with the likes of Jobe and Dan Neil evolving into seriously impressive Championship-class midfielders, Patrick Roberts making a huge impact on his return to the team and Alex Pritchard continuing to show his quality, we simply had far too much for the visibly demoralised Owls.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ben Roberts Photo/Getty Images

The endless debate about where this team sits in the pantheon of Sunderland squads from years gone by is interesting. The gold standard remains our class of 1998/1999, with a mixture of strength, skill and deadly finishing, but this is something different entirely.

There’s more emphasis on youth, the cosmopolitan nature of the team has brought together players from all kinds of backgrounds, and the pathway from the academy to the first team is now bearing fruit.

Perhaps even more exciting is the fact that once our injury crisis begins to ease, some supremely talented footballers will be back in the mix.

The thought of reuniting Neil with Pierre Ekwah, welcoming Dennis Cirkin and Aji Alese back into the fold, and seeing what Timothée Pembélé and Eliezer Mayenda can add is extremely exciting.

Immense credit must go to the recruitment team, to Mowbray, his coaching staff and the players for what they’ve put together. After years of lacking an identity and a style of play that was truly ‘us’, we’ve finally created something exciting, progressive and with the potential to result in great things.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

When he was appointed last year, who would’ve believed that the football he’d oversee would be among the most exciting we’ve seen at the Stadium of Light in years?

Mowbray hasn’t just defied any stereotypical opinions of him - he’s elevated the team to a new level, developed a culture that rewards skill and hard work, and has helped to turn Sunderland into a formidable Championship outfit.

If watching Wednesday struggle desperately on Friday night (Jeff Hendrick and Ashley Fletcher in a Championship team in 2023 is about as stark as it gets) was reminiscent of watching us from 2017/2018, the tables have finally turned and we’re now aiming higher than ever.

This week’s double header against a struggling Watford and a slowly-awakening Middlesbrough is a wonderful opportunity for us to reinforce our top six credentials as well as addressing our undeniably poor home form, which remains the only real hindrance to a sustained top six push.

Sunderland v Southampton FC - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Matt Watson/Southampton FC via Getty Images

September was a fruitful month for the Lads, as we recovered from an indifferent start to take great strides up the table. If October can follow a similar trend, we’ll have an outstanding chance of establishing ourselves among the front runners in what’s sure to be a highly competitive and unpredictable league.

Routine wins in the style of Friday night are often the hallmark of teams with lofty ambitions. Sunderland ticked that box and then some on the most stress-free night imaginable at Hillsborough.


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