The purists are likely to disagree with me, but Friday’s game at Turf Moor was very enjoyable to watch from a Sunderland perspective.
The players showed a grittier side of their game and that they’re capable of rolling their sleeves up and doing the dirty work when necessary.
In a strange sort of way, the drubbing at the hands of Stoke at the beginning of March has brought out the less aesthetically pleasing side of our team. We saw it against Norwich a couple of weeks ago and we saw it against Burnley, too.
When Alex Neil was in charge, we looked like a team who were set up primarily to keep the opposition at bay.
However, since Tony Mowbray took charge we’ve become one of the league’s most attacking teams, with a squad filled with flair and zest who can destroy a defence as quick as a bulldozer on an old apartment block.
Despite the sumptuous attacking play that we’ve been fortunate to witness this season, there’s also been a degree of vulnerability and softness that’s been apparent at times.
For every wonderful display we’ve seen, such as the away games against Reading and Wigan along with Millwall and Middlesbrough at home, there have been occasions where our defensive displays have been poor, such as Cardiff and Swansea at home, along with Coventry and Rotherham away.
Like any new squad, it’s a balancing act in trying to mould the side into one that has a bit of everything to give them the best opportunity of success. In the main though, our attacking game has been very potent and the envy of some of the best teams in the league.
Getting things right at the back is the next step in the development of this young squad. Mowbray appears to have learned a couple of lessons from the Stoke debacle, and there’s no doubt that the team has benefited from the performances of some of our more experienced pros.
Danny Batth has probably been one of our most consistent performers this season and with the return of Lynden Gooch to the team, it’s imperative that these seasoned professionals help out our talented youngsters.
These players have done all this before, and their presence ensures that there’s been no long term hangover after our worst defeat of the season.
Central to this has been the performances of Luke O’Nien.
His versatility has seen him play in almost every position and lately, he’s settled into the defence where he’s been integral to a more solid backline.
His way of playing is almost comical to watch, yet it would certainly frustrate me if I was an opponent. There’s certainly an element of ‘playing on the edge’ with O’Nien, which liberates him to get up close and personal with opposition players.
His interactions with Jacob Sorensen of Norwich, where he cheekily tried to kiss him or his jockeying of Bristol midfielder Alex Scott as he tried to escape on the counter attack are examples of s***housery at its finest.
He displays a fearlessness and a level of bravery that’s needed in the Championship and whilst our squad is littered with talented players, it’s essential that we show the ability to be hated by opposition fans.
Doing the dirty side of the game is almost as important as the moments of quality that the likes of Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts often show.
I reckon this summer is going to be another busy one on Wearside.
If we can bring in a couple of other players in the O’Nien mould, we’ll get even closer to having the balance in our team or at the very least, have enough players to create a horse race meeting!