If Tony Mowbray’s final pre-match words to Abdoullah Ba before we kicked off against Southampton were something along the lines of, ‘You're my man today, Abdoullah. Go out there, play your game and show everyone what you’re capable of’, it’s fair to say that the Frenchman responded emphatically.
After an erratic performance on the wing at Coventry, Ba was a revelation against the Saints with an electric display, and it led to some discussions about whether he should retain his place for the trip to QPR, even if our first choice right winger, Patrick Roberts, is fit and ready for the game this Saturday.
For what it’s worth, I would personally start Roberts against Gareth Ainsworth’s team, and that’s not a slight on Ba, whose attributes I’ll come to in a minute and who’ll doubtless have a major role to play this season.
On a tight and compact West London pitch, Roberts’ ability to make space, bring others into play and retain the ball when things are getting nervy will be key, and after all of the speculation about his future at Sunderland, he could well have a point to prove when we resume after the international break.
However, not only did Ba do his own cause the power of good against Russell Martin’s men, he also offered some exciting evidence that should Mowbray wish to change things up, he’s potentially got an alternative to Roberts who can step into the breach and contribute when necessary.
This isn't to say that Ba is anywhere near the finished article, and nor does it end the argument about where his ‘natural’ position is, but it’s fair to say that after such a performance, it would be churlish to deny the fact that his pace, trickery and boundless energy played a huge role in one of our best home displays in a long time.
If Ba needs any further encouragement and proof of what can happen if you’re willing to work hard and take your chances when they arrive, he need only look to the opposite flank, where a highly evolved Jack Clarke is now performing at a consistently high level and making a serious of derisory summer bids from Burnley look ever more ridiculous.
Since his arrival at Sunderland in January 2021, Clarke’s progression from an erratic yet talented winger into a dynamic, all-round threat has been notable. In both attack and defence, he’s improved immeasurably and he’s now a crucial cog in the red and white machine.
He’s physically stronger, he’s far more disciplined, and his decision making is much more consistent as well.
That's come about as a result of excellent coaching and a willingness on Clarke’s part to apply himself, and Ba is in the perfect environment to do exactly the same. His talent is clear to see, and his performance against Southampton needs to be the benchmark moving forward.
Can he combine that raw ability with greater footballing intelligence and more defensive awareness? Is he willing, like Clarke, to work as hard off the ball as he does with it? If he can, there’s no reason he can’t follow the same path as the former Tottenham winger and ignite his Sunderland career.
Players like Ba have the ability to frustrate and leave you scratching your head as to why they made a certain decision or played a particular pass at a key moment in a game, but they’ve been brought to the club for a reason.
We’re developing players organically rather than buying ready-made superstars, and there’s something deeply satisfying about such an approach.
When these lads go through their inevitable dips in form, it makes the highs that much more pronounced and enjoyable, and Ba’s performance against the Saints was a classic example.
Frankly, whatever we think of Ba, or any other young prospect currently in the first team picture, counts for very little in the grand scheme of things. He’s clearly enjoying a good deal of backing from Mowbray, and that’s the most important thing for any player.
Yes, Roberts should still have first claim to a place in the starting eleven this weekend, but after a summer during which the question of depth was discussed at length, it’s encouraging to see that behind the ex-Celtic winger, there are players with that talent- if not the consistency- to challenge for a role in the team as the season unfolds.
More performances of the standard we saw during the 5-0 demolition of a promotion favourite, and the future for Ba could be very bright indeed.