Back at home, back to winning ways, and back to the version of Sunderland that we’ve known and loved so often this season.
If Tony Mowbray and his players were feeling any undue pressure ahead of Saturday’s ‘must win’ game against Norwich City, it certainly didn’t manifest itself in either our tactical approach or execution as we steadied the ship in an impressively controlled fashion.
Seven days ago, we were left to reflect on Sunderland’s second consecutive defeat, following the home hammering by Middlesbrough, as a trip to the Potteries ended badly for Mowbray and his team. That afternoon, Alex Neil was joyous and we were deflated as a striker-less approach left us empty handed and more than a little embarrassed.
Three days later, we restored some pride with a much-improved display, albeit in defeat, against the Championship’s seemingly unstoppable force in Leicester City. Had we left the King Power Stadium with a point, it would’ve been fully deserved, but one moment of defensive sloppiness ultimately proved our undoing.
It was to everyone’s great relief, therefore, that when the final whistle blew on Saturday evening, we’d emerged on the right side of the (broken) scoreboard against the Canaries, whose fans only raised their voices with five minutes left to play as they broke into an emphatic chorus of ‘We Want Wagner Out’.
For the travelling fans, it really was that bad, but for the red and white faithful, we could celebrate a job well done and a victory that calmed the waters and eased us back into the top six picture.
Even the concession of an early goal, during which we made the fatal error of not playing to the whistle as we appealed in vain for offside, didn’t throw us off course, and the eventual 3-1 win was fully deserved.
With two winnable fixtures to come against Swansea and Birmingham City, there’s every chance that we could construct another winning run as we enter November, and having emerged from our first real rut of 2023/2024, there’ll be a new sense of optimism ahead of the trip to the Liberty Stadium before Wayne Rooney’s side make the trip north.
Ahead of those games, Mowbray potentially has some selection dilemmas to address.
As brilliant as he’s been so far, could we be arriving at the ideal moment to rest Jobe Bellingham and perhaps give the composed and prodigiously talented Chris Rigg some important game time during the trip to South Wales and against the visiting Blues a week on Saturday?
During his recent cameos against Norwich and Leicester, Rigg has looked seriously impressive when coming off the bench, and it would do Bellingham no harm at all to recharge his batteries and subsequently continue his immensely impressive start to life on Wearside.
At the back, Dennis Cirkin is in the picture once again, and a possible choice between himself and Niall Huggins, as heartening as it’s been to see the former Leeds defender getting a run in the team, isn’t a bad call for Mowbray to have to make.
Saturday was also encouraging in the sense that not only was our all round performance far closer to the level we need to aim for at home, several individuals showed signs of getting closer to their influential best.
Dan Ballard and Luke O’Nien enjoyed a stress-free afternoon against a toothless Norwich attack, the midfield combination of Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah found its rhythm once again, and Jack Clarke was borderline unplayable, running the Canaries backline ragged and continuing his remarkable goalscoring run in the process.
However, perhaps the most intriguing subplot from this victory was a punchy, lively performance from Nazariy Rusyn, who led the line over the out-of-form Mason Burstow.
The Ukrainian was alert, showed some flashes of pace, was willing to run the channels, and looked extremely combative against a Norwich defence that was marshalled in spectacularly woeful fashion by Shane Duffy.
Surely Rusyn did enough to secure his position in the team for the foreseeable future, and if our attacking midfielders can strike up a partnership with him, the ‘lack of goals from strikers’ problem may start to ease.
In recent days, there’s been a tremendous amount of scrutiny on Mowbray, his squad, and our recruitment policy. The demands for wholesale changes were there in some quarters and some even suggested that his job could’ve been on the line had we lost on Saturday.
It’s to everyone’s credit, therefore, that we held our nerve, controlled the game, and halted our losing run so impressively.
This was our fourth home victory of the season after only racking up seven victories during 2022/2023, and just like the hammering of Southampton earlier in the season, it provided a template that we should aim to follow whenever we play in front of our own supporters.