Sunderland defy logic, reason and expectations
Pre-match, there might’ve been plenty of nerves and anxiety at the prospect of facing Russell Martin’s all-star Southampton, a team tipped by many to make an instant return to the Premier League this season and blessed with a squad that, for this level, is immensely strong.
However, by the time the final whistle blew, those worries had disappeared amid a flurry of goals, sensational passages of play, and a display of attacking football that was utterly thrilling and as good as anything the Stadium of Light has witnessed in recent years.
From Jack Clarke’s early goal to a fairytale ending for Chris Rigg, the Lads simply overwhelmed Southampton with pace, aggression, composure, some superb interplay, and a standard of game management that we’ve not seen often enough at home since we returned to the Championship.
For our new signings, Adil Aouchiche, Timothée Pembélé and Mason Burstow, who were unveiled on the pitch before the game, this must’ve been quite an experience and they’ll doubtless have been very excited by what they saw, as well as the prospect of joining such a quality squad of players.
Pierre Ekwah dominates proceedings again
Trying to highlight individual performances is a difficult task after such a complete team performance, but Ekwah was among the cream of the crop in red and white on Saturday, and not just on the back of his two-goal salvo, either.
This was another monstrous performance from the midfielder, who showed that he’s not only developing into one of our most important and reliable players, but that we plundered an absolute diamond of a footballer from West Ham in January.
Ekwah is the kind of physically dominant and dynamic presence that the Sunderland engine room has sorely needed for the best part of a decade, and against the Saints, he was a man possessed, winning tackles, keeping the play moving, as well as chipping in with two goals and leading by example at all times.
Depth in central midfield will remain an issue for us until Jay Matete and Corry Evans are fit again, so there’s a big onus on Ekwah to remain fit and firing. However, based on this display, he’s just getting warmed up and he’s looking every inch a genuine midfield enforcer.
Abdoullah Ba lights up the right wing
Where on Earth has this version of Ba been hiding this season?
The former Le Havre prodigy, around whom suspicions linger that he’s not a genuine winger, was quite simply unplayable at times on Saturday, to the delight of a raucous Stadium of Light crowd who were doubtless hoping for some encouraging signs from the youngster.
He backed up his pace, trickery and fleetness of foot with a far higher standard of awareness and footballing intelligence, and he had the visitors’ backline worried every time he got on the ball. On such an occasion, players can often find something extra within themselves, and that was the case here.
On the other wing, Jack Clarke was equally deadly on Saturday, and in the absence of Patrick Roberts, this was the kind of performance that’ll give Ba a huge boost of confidence, as well as the belief that he can play a major role for us in a wide position, as opposed to his ‘natural’ position of number ten.
Sunderland service notice of their capability once again
Make no mistake: this was a serious statement of intent from Mowbray’s team on Saturday.
Southampton, awash with cash from player sales and parachute payments, are one of the hot favourites to challenge for promotion, and they’ll doubtless be up there, but this was our day, and we certainly sent a message to the Championship that last season’s sixth-place finish was merely the start of our journey and not the end.
Time and time again, these lads have shown their mettle and after an indifferent start, we’re beginning to build some momentum with two wins and a draw from our last three games.
Imagine thinking that Luke O’Nien is not a skilful and highly competent Championship footballer, for example, or thinking that Dan Neil isn’t as good in midfield as he often shows he is. This is a very, very good team that’s been assembled by our recruitment team, and they’ve got the potential to take this club forward at pace in the years to come.
Yes, there’ll be dips in form as the season unfolds, and results like this may be rare occurrences, but let’s enjoy them when they do happen, because this was one of the most memorable Stadium of Light occasions for many years, and everyone certainly made the most of it.