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Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship

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Talking Points: Sunderland positively start 2024!

The Lads welcomed in the New Year with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Preston at the Stadium of Light. Phil West looks at the game’s main stories

Photo by Martin Swinney/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

A controlled performance and a deserved victory

After a predictably scrappy draw against Rotherham on Friday, during which several Sunderland players seemed slightly jaded and lacking in spark, this was a welcome boost for everyone as 2024 dawned and we ensured that our Championship campaign remains on course.

Inconsistency away from the Stadium of Light has defined our 2023/2024 campaign so far, but our home form has generally been solid and that was cause to be optimistic ahead of the game.

That said, after a disastrous defeat at the hands of Coventry during his first home game as head coach, Michael Beale needed his players to deliver against the Lilywhites and after some changes were rung and a slightly different starting eleven was fielded, that’s exactly what they did.

Our first half display was impressive, with a solid defensive performance, plenty of control in midfield and two goals of excellent quality, and although there was a noticeable drop off in both intensity and attacking threat after the break, we controlled the game expertly, kept the visitors at bay, and ensured that there were no nerves as the second half unfolded.

This was the kind of ‘routine’ victory that all teams with aspirations of success need to be able to achieve. It wasn’t a game that’ll live long in the memory, but the three points and the clean sheet more than made up for a lack of second half excitement.

After four games, it’s fair to say that Beale’s introduction to life on Wearside has largely been positive - in terms of results if not complete ninety-minute performances - and this victory means we can head into Saturday’s FA Cup tie with Newcastle United on an upbeat note.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

Alex Pritchard makes his point

Restored to the starting eleven amid rumours of a possible January exit, this felt like a wonderful opportunity for the ex-Huddersfield playmaker to show why he remains such a key component of Sunderland’s team, and Pritchard showed all of his class, guile, and composure to play a major role in our victory.

His goal- a swerving, accurate and powerful first half strike- was one of the best we’ve scored at home all season, and his performance oozed class as he conducted our movements on the pitch and kept us on the front foot during the first half in particular.

It’s absolutely imperative that we retain the services of Pritchard for the remainder of the season, and his contractual situation can hopefully be worked out during the summer.

We’re blessed with a plethora of talented attackers, many of whom have the potential to become major assets, but Pritchard’s quality is in no doubt and he deserves to retain his place in the starting eleven for the foreseeable future. Ensuring that he doesn’t leave the club during this window should be uppermost in the minds of Kristjaan Speakman and company.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Changes rung with great effect

When the starting eleven was published on Monday morning, the most notable inclusions were Nazariy Rusyn and Aji Alese, the former having finally been brought back into the fold after an absence that’s often felt slightly baffling, and the latter after returning from an injury that’s kept him out of the picture since the end of 2022/2023.

It certainly felt like a move designed to freshen things up and to give us a little more impetus, and that’s exactly what happened, as Rusyn not only scored his first goal in red and white, he impressed with a combative, lively performance that kept the visiting defence honest all afternoon.

Alese, meanwhile, slotted back into the defence in impressive fashion and some strong challenges suggested that the former West Ham player, who’s endured a stop-start Sunderland career, could be getting even closer to his dominant best than we perhaps thought.

Defensive depth isn’t a major concern for Sunderland, with plenty of players vying for a place in the team, and Beale will duly be able to rotate and tweak our defensive formation as and when he feels it’s necessary, which will be key as he aims to keep our top six challenge on course during the second half of the season.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Martin Swinney/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Ekwah’s confidence continues to grow

It’s fair to say that many of our players have experienced some ups and downs in form this season, and perhaps Pierre Ekwah embodies this more than any of his teammates, but in recent weeks, the midfielder has shown plenty of signs that he’s slowly starting to get back to his best.

Against Preston, he was a steady and reliable presence in the midfield, doing the basics with minimal fuss, keeping the play ticking over and perhaps most importantly, playing with his head up and his zeal seemingly restored.

As he gets to know Beale and the head coach gets a better idea of what Ekwah’s strengths are, there should hopefully be a mutually beneficial relationship starting to flourish, which can only help the team in the long run. Tony Mowbray backed the former West Ham prospect without fail, and you certainly hope that Beale will do something similar.

In order to keep the red and white engine room ticking over and capable of ramping up the intensity when needed, we do need to add a genuine game-breaking central defensive midfielder during this transfer window, but against Hull City and certainly on New Year’s Day, Ekwah proved that he’s got the ability to endure the inevitable dips in form and respond strongly.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

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