The Build Up
I think most of this week has consisted of general anxiety around Sunderland. Three consecutive defeats, a growing injury list and a terrible set of upcoming fixtures - it was very easy to feel as though the wheels were about to come off.
After playing what seemed like so many midweek fixtures lately, the last thing Tony Mowbray’s side probably wanted was a week to dwell on the horrors against Stoke and Norwich were an opponent who had been scoring for fun recently under David Wagner.
When the news of Aji Alese’s season-ending thigh injury emerged, the one element of relief was that Dennis Cirkin would come back in, but he too would also be missing due to the ongoing effects of concussion. No natural left-back would be available and Mowbray seemed a highly distressed figure during his press conference.
To make matters worse, rumours started to circulate on Twitter that Amad would be missing, as if we needed to have any more goalscorers missing!
Fast forward to 11am on Sunday, the Amad rumours are confirmed, but Alex Pritchard is another surprise figure to miss out of the matchday squad.
Luke O’Nien is brought in at left-back/left-centre-back, Edouard Michut returns and Abdoullah Ba is handed a rare start also.
The key questions were whether would continue to be bullied and susceptible on the break, plus who would deliver the goals?
The First Half
Sunderland began the match brightly and were not afraid to get on the ball and play.
After losing the physical battle in recent games, both Dan Neil and Edouard Michut were combative in the middle, working harder and looking more comfortable on the ball, but I think the key difference was the presence of Luke O’Nien which made Sunderland look far more solid at the back. Sunderland looked like they were here to win points.
Our opening chances came through Jack Clarke who was very effective down the left and through Joe Gelhardt, but both chances were comfortably saved by Angus Gunn.
At the other end, Norwich’s key early chance came through Max Aarons when Clarke went to sleep, but his shot was easily saved by Anthony Patterson.
Then came the moment of magic! Patrick Roberts played a delightful ball to Gelhardt who passed to Ba, who then showed brilliant footwork followed by an excellent shot with his left that nestled into the bottom right corner.
It was the 19-year-old Frenchman’s first goal for Sunderland and it has been a long time coming.
Just two minutes later, the match should have been wrapped up! The battling spirit I mentioned above from Neil resulted in Gelhardt going one vs one, but his lack of composure in a red and white shirt unfortunately continued with his shot going straight at Gunn.
Either corner and many Canaries would have been off for an early pint.
Throughout the rest of the half Sunderland looked comfortable defensively and you could see the lads had a point to prove.
The likes of Clarke and Roberts were tracking back well, Hume was firm in the tackle and the trio of O’Nien, Danny Batth and Dan Ballard were simply outstanding against a very good set of forwards.
We had less of the possession, but when we had it we made the most of it and Sunderland went in at half-time deserving our lead.
The Second Half
After Norwich brought on Josh Sargent, who scored the winner when the two sides met back in August, it was far more one-sided, but throughout the second half a similar theme occurred with Norwich having the ball but simply failing to breach Sunderland’s backline.
Bar a chance where Teemu Pukki should have done better, Anthony Patterson never really faced any clear-cut chances and he dealt with what he had to very very well.
Even when Wagner brought on on-loan Arsenal winger Marquinhos, what seemed like a back six at times stood firm and simply refused to give away anything.
You could see the difference between the sheer effort Batth, Ballard and O’Nien were making to make first contact and get in the way of everything, compared to how Norwich just let Ba shift and shoot with ease.
It was a side who were desperate to keep a clean sheet after embarrassingly conceding five at home.
When Sunderland went to the bench, Mowbray’s subs were effective despite having a very youthful choice.
It was brilliant to see Lynden Gooch back in a red and white shirt and he symbolised perfectly the attitude you want to see when you bring someone on.
He ran for every ball like his life depended on it, was firm in the tackle and just slotted back in as if he had never been away. He will find it very difficult to win his place back from Hume, but it will be fantastic for Mowbray to have experience and versatility on the bench for the short-term.
Pierre Ekwah added a presence but had a mixed performance. He made an excellent tackle to prevent a Norwich chance, but once again had an inconsistent touch and misjudged a ball which resulted in Batth taking a yellow.
I’m intrigued to see more of Isaac Lihadji, whose pace and running ability looks like to will cause problems, he did a great job of being an outlet and providing some legs for the tired Gelhardt.
Aside from a few tactical fouls and a miskick from Patto, Sunderland rarely had any nervous moments and never really looked like conceding. It was a very well battled three points and second half the lads just dug in and ground out the victory, something we haven’t done enough of.
Keeping a clean sheet against an excellent Championship side on the road will help bring back some confidence to the group and we will be facing Sheffield United at an excellent time given their dip in form.
Man of the Match
I think this could have easily gone to Ballard or Batth, but for me, the difference maker was Luke O’Nien.
After his MOTM display against QPR last month and his brilliant form prior to his red card against Swansea, I think it was a mistake keeping O’Nien on the bench often lately as I always feel Sunderland look better with him on the pitch.
He wins headers, loves a tackle, can play anywhere, gives absolutely for the shirt and is a constant enigma in that you never know what crazy moment is coming next. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player kiss another during a scuffle, but does anything surprise you when O’Nien is involved?