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West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - The Hawthorns

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The loss of Ross Stewart has unlocked a different and devastating side to Sunderland’s game

In the absence of Stewart, we’ve had to source goals via other means in order to keep our season on track, and it’s resulted in some truly stunning team play

Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

There was a delicious element of poetic justice at play on Sunday, both on and off the field.

Hours before the EFL award for the Championship’s ‘goal of the season’ was dished out, despite the shortlist ludicrously not featuring a single contribution from Sunderland, we were utilising our own brand of attacking football in order to see off West Bromwich Albion.

After Dennis Cirkin rounded off yet another exceptional move with a dinked finish past Alex Palmer at the Hawthorns, Sky Sports’ Don Goodman summed up the goal in perhaps the most appropriate fashion.

They haven’t got a big striker, they can’t toss it in. They have to pass it, move it quickly, and get it right. When they do, things of beauty like that can happen.

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - The Hawthorns Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

Prior to that word-perfect summary, Goodman also referenced our goals against Hull and Reading, both of which were of a similar ilk and showcased the outstanding technical ability of this team to its fullest extent.

When the season is over and we have a chance to reflect on the campaign as a whole, one thing that’ll surely stand out in everyone’s minds is the sheer quality of many of the goals we’ve scored during 2022/2023, but there’s no doubt that the story could’ve been very different.

When Ross Stewart crumpled to the Craven Cottage turf during our FA Cup tie against Fulham with only a few days of the transfer window left, the nightmare scenario of playing the remainder of the season without our deadly target man suddenly loomed large.

After all, Stewart had already missed a large chunk of the campaign due to injury, Ellis Simms had been pitched into the relegation battle at Goodison Park, and losing both of them without bringing in a similar replacement could’ve potentially dealt a huge blow to our chances of a successful season.

Sunderland v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

However, as impactful as Stewart’s absence has been, it’s also enabled Sunderland to hone a style of play that doesn't involve punting the ball up to a big frontman who can hold it up, add some physicality, and bring others into play.

Expanding on Goodman’s theory, we’ve fashioned plenty of goals over the course of the season that have relied on composure, skill, spatial awareness and above all, the confidence to try things.

It’s also to the credit of Stewart’s teammates that they haven’t shirked responsibility, either. The goals have been shared around the team, with Cirkin’s two goal contribution the latest impressive example, and many different players have chipped in from time to time.

What we’re seeing at the moment is the net result of a process that began in 2021, when the club’s recruitment policy started to evolve from scattergun into something much more structured.

When we brought the likes of Cirkin, Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts to Sunderland, it felt as though they were signings for both the present and the future in the Championship, and that’s exactly what's happened.

Whilst we often struggled to make inroads in the hustle and bustle of League One, the Championship has been much more to our liking, as we’ve been able to utilise a style of play that relies less on brawn and more on brains.

Have we sacrificed a little bit of nastiness in order to do that? Undoubtedly, but it seems fair to say that it’s often been worth it.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Martin Swinney/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Amad’s recent winning goal against Birmingham was another brilliant example of a simple move, executed to perfection and capped by a devastating finish.

A sweeping cross-field ball from Clarke, effortless control from Amad and then an explosive finish to match. In theory, nothing too flashy, but reliant on the perfect weight of pass and the knowledge that your teammate will be in the right place at the right time.

With notable contributions from Alex Pritchard and Edouard Michut, Cirkin’s strike against West Brom was a goal that, had it been scored by one of football’s aristocrats, the pundits would be raving about for a week.

As it was, the sixteen pass move that left the Baggies players in knots and the travelling fans in raptures could be enjoyed by everyone of a red and white persuasion as another shining example of just how potent we can be when it clicks in attack.

Much is made of ‘playing football the right way’, and whilst good teams always play to their strengths and opt for pragmatism when needed, our free-flowing style has demonstrated that the loss of a main focal point is not necessarily terminal, as long as the players are willing to work hard, further their skills, and develop the confidence to take risks.

It’s very much a ‘play it as you see it’ kind of approach, it’s clearly being encouraged by Tony Mowbray and more often than not, it’s worked like an absolute charm.


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