Rumours involving the imminent departures of Patrick Roberts, Dan Neil, and Jack Clarke had certainly dampened spirits, but the fears of a mass exodus were quickly eradicated following a frankly astounding deadline day resurrection which involved four crucial new arrivals. And if you consider the seven points Sunderland have taken from a possible nine since an away defeat at Preston, along with the 5-0 drubbing of Southampton, you are left with a very rosy state of affairs.
Of course, the departure of our former talisman Ross Stewart, honorary Mackem Lynden Gooch, and defensive stalwart Danny Batth was a real shame. However, a magnificent display at the Stadium of Light, paired with some excellent incomings, means the club looks in good shape to make that much sought after promotion bid.
Southampton had made an unbeaten start to life back in the Championship, taking 10 points from 12 and scoring 10 times in the process. The fixture also comes with a recent history of comfortable Saints victories against the Black Cats, with our last win against the south coast side coming back in May 2015. Of course, St Mary’s was the venue of a spectacular Santiago Vergini own goal, which set up a famous 8-0 thrashing. That result remains the joint heaviest top flight defeat in Sunderland’s history.
Clearly, we had not so much as glanced at the history books and produced a wonderful team performance. Post match, Tony Mowbray highlighted our intentions to play in transition from the get-go, and our acceptance that Southampton would be dominant in possession. We stayed pragmatic, stuck to our strengths, and executed the game plan perfectly.
Player of the Match Jack Clarke said that the team had “just clicked”, and it did feel like the campaign had not only been kickstarted but sent flying into 5th gear.
Pierre Ekwah stood out, looking totally dominant in the middle of the park, breaking up play and single-handedly dismantling at least a handful of otherwise potentially dangerous Southampton counters. The former France U20 international can certainly play a pass, seems to constantly make the right decisions, and possesses an absolute pile driver of a left boot. I can’t praise the boy enough, and his two goals summed up a complete midfielder’s performance.
Another shining light came in the form of Abdoullah Ba, who has grown into the shoes left by an injury-stricken Patrick Roberts over the past few weeks. The 20-year-old remains rough round the edges as he learns his newfound role on the right flank, but on Saturday was relentless in picking up useful forward positions and looked far more decisive in the final third.
His game intelligence to hold up play, before delightfully spreading it to Hume for the first goal, came as an early warning sign for Southampton fullback Ryan Manning, who had a torrid time all afternoon. The Frenchman’s excellent composure remained as he assisted Ekwah for Sunderland’s second, and for Dack’s fourth, his decision to just to stick it in that corridor of uncertainty was very welcome.
Two weeks ago, he would have still found these positions, but dithered and lost the ball (see Coventry and Preston away). This time, decisiveness and composure prevailed, with our new starboy playing a massive role right up until his 80th minute substitution.
Honourable mentions go to Dan Ballard, who was an immovable force at centre half, and to England’s U17 captain Chris Rigg. To see the utter delight on that young man’s face after he headed home his first league goal may even have bought a glimmer of a smile to the most stalwart Newcastle fan, and for it to be assisted by Jewison Bennette just added to its majesty. The Costa Rican’s wonderfully erratic hattrick of Maradona spins before delivering an inch perfect cross to the back post just summed up the performance.
No Stewart, no problem
Not only does this performance bode well for a potentially tasty run of fixtures, but after the incomings on deadline day, it also gives the coaching staff one hell of a ‘good headache to have’. The clammers for an out-and-out striker have duly been met with the arrival of Manson Burstow and Nazarily Rusyn, but after Saturday it seems difficult to drop any of the current starting lineup.
The 20-year-old Burstow, signed from Chelsea, made 30 appearances for their U21 setup, bagging 11 goals and collecting 4 assists in the process. This, accompanied by a fruitful spell at Charlton Athletic where he scored 6 senior goals in all competitions, bodes very well for the club. The Addicks development lead head coach, Anthony Hayes, said – speaking to the South Press in December 2021 – that the youngster “can do everything”, highlighting his ability to not only make runs in behind, but also to drop deeper, linking the play. Add to this his strong aerial player and creative abilities, and you have the complete forward player, who will bring a new dimension going forward.
Despite all this, Burstow will undoubtedly have to fight for his place, due to the imminent arrival of Nazarily Rusyn, who is waiting for Visas and work permits to allow his arrival on Wearside. The Ukrainian hit man comes from Zorya Lugansk in Ukraine’s first division and should give Mowbray a quicker and more dynamic option. He looks to dart in behind, will be quick on the break and aims to link with wingers and attacking midfielders, surely making him well suited to our quick final third ball movement.
Via these incomings Kristjaan Speakman has solved the glaring lack of strikers in the squad, and, at least on paper, has put together a potent attacking lineup for the rest of the campaign.
Speaking on SAFC’s official YouTube channel, Speakman stated that “overall we’re really really happy with where the squads at”, adding that he feels “like there’s a lot of depth in the squad, [and that] there’s a lot of potential in the group”. He spoke about wanting to forge a “flexible forward line”, and when you look at our attacking options, a variety of different profiles and attributes are evident.
The incomings have also taken some pressure off Hemir, who looks decidedly lost during his short time at the club. It’s vital not to turn on the 19-year-old, and I know I sound cliché but we must give him time – he’s in a new country, with a new language, and about 1900km from home.
The Wear or the Rhone?
With the issue of strikers sorted it’s time to address the French influence coursing through the veins of the club. The standout performances of Ekwah and Ba, along with the arrivals of Timothee Pembele and Adil Aouchiche, make for a French revolution on Wearside. And there’s a lot to be excited about.
Timothee Pembele enters the fray from PSG after making 37 Ligue 1 appearances, including 11 for the Parisian outfit. The 20-year-old also made a brief appearance during PSG’s 2020 Champions League campaign, coming off the bench as Les Parisiens cruised to a 5-1 win against Istanbul Basaksehir. He should offer plenty going forward given his pace, will always take on his man, with an average of 9.16 dribbles per 90 during the 2021/22 season (leading Ligue 1 in that stat), and will provide some much-needed competition for Hume after Gooch’s departure.
Adil Aouchiche will add yet more fuel to the fire in attack, after his arrival from FC Lorient to the Stadium of Light. The 21-year-old attacking midfielder already possesses plenty of top flight experience, collecting 2 goals and 9 assists over 4 seasons. His 81 Ligue 1 appearances during spells at PSG, Saint-Etienne, and FC Lorient prove his credentials and further intensifies the scrap – which now includes Jobe, Dack, and Pritchard – for a spot at number 10.
Of course, the international break is in full flow as you read this, so there is the perfect opportunity for Mowbray to fully integrate his new players into the squad and the system. I for one will be highly intrigued to see the team he goes for when our championship season restarts next Saturday at Queens Park Rangers.