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Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship

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Matchday Musings: Solid Sunderland start 2024 by seeing off Preston

“The focus from my perspective before kick off was for us to get back to playing confident and flowing football, with minimal unforced errors and silly mistakes, especially after that awful display in Yorkshire.” Malc Dugdale chews over his thoughts post today’s steady and solid 2-0 win.

Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Expectations were mixed for me for this game, and considering the history of our games with North End, there were plenty reason for this to be a potentially challenging match, even at our place. Sunderland had only won once in the last 8 games against these (home or away), that being the 3-0 away win in May of this year, which secured our playoff challenge last season.

After a lacklustre performance away at bottom of the table Rotherham last time out, nobody could blame me or anyone else for being hesitant in predicting a strong result for the lads.

The focus from my perspective before kick off was for us to get back to playing confident and flowing football with minimal unforced errors and silly mistakes, especially after that awful display in Yorkshire.

If we could do that, give Jack Clarke some support up front and take some of our chances when they come, we would surely make better progress in the league as we approach the business end of the season.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The starting XI gave me and most fans reason for at least some optimism, mainly due to us starting a striker (Naz Rusyn) for the first time in what feels like forever. Other changes saw Aji Alese come into the back line, with Jensen Seelt dropping to the bench, while Alex Pritchard also came in on the right side of the midfield/wide right, fully recovered from his chest illness ahead of the injured Roberts as well as the questionably performing Abdoullah Ba.

The opening half saw the majority of the action across the whole 90 minutes, and Patterson’s attention and skills were needed inside the first 5 minutes when a snap shot from the edge of the box by Preston had to be parried around Patto’s left post.

It wasn't long before the return of Alex Pritchard paid dividends, however, after those slightly scary early moments for the visitors.

Sunderland v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

The 30 year old midfielder was clearly given license to come off the right wing to create chances and confusion for the Preston defence.

On the stroke of ten minutes, Pritchard found a tidy pocket of space in between midfield and the edge of the Preston box, after being deftly fed by Pierre Ekwah. His turn and run towards goal seemed to open up more space as he advanced, prompting him to hit an absolute thunderb*stard of a shot from about 25 yards, which curled beautifully away from the keeper and into the inside netting of the keeper's left hand post.

For a first goal of the season, it was an absolute belter by Pritch, and is hopefully the first of many for the comparative midfield veteran who recently returned to our attacking collective after a nasty chest infection, which is apparently working its way through the squad.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We had a great chance of doubling the lead 20 minutes later when the lively and (for Preston probably very annoying) Naz Rusyn burst through the middle of the park and tapped the ball past the Preston defender Lindsay, looking to overtake him and bear down on goal.

Sadly, the defender decided to shoulder-charge Rusyn to prevent his attacking run from maturing into a shot on goal, an act which got Lindsay into the ref’s book in the 39th minute. Rusyn was not done though, and a minute ahead of the end of the first 45, he got his first goal in SAFC colours.

After a Preston attack broke down through a solid aerial collection by Anthony Patterson in our box, the young stopper showed his improved distribution skills with a great throw out to Clarke, who he spotted was making a run towards the halfway line.

Preston tried to fell the Sunderland star man around the half way circle, but he rode the challenge and benefitted from the ref allowing advantage too. Clarke then drove past his wide marker and cut the ball into the edge of the box, finding Rusyn who had made a cracking front post dart in front of the unaware Preston defender to side foot the cross past the North End keeper.

So, half time and 2-0 up at home, to a team who statistically create very little, but have conversation rates better than most for what they do conjure up. The second period to come would surely be all about Preston trying to get a goal to get back into the game, and Sunderland looking to keep a clean sheet, while looking for a 3rd goal if the chance arose.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

While the above expectations were the ultimate outcome, the second half was a bit of a dull affair. Preston had shots on goal around the 50th minute mark (easily saved at the near post by Patto), and had a half hearted shout for a penalty turned down twenty minutes into the second half, when O’Nien’s physicality proved both legal and effective in the ref’s view, preventing a decent through ball becoming a potential shot on goal.

As the half progressed I was left wondering if SAFC should have maybe “gone for it” a bit more, seeking out a third goal to totally kill the game off rather than aiming to hold on to the two goal cushion earned in the first period.

Reflecting on that, I have to remind myself of times in the past that we have pushed too much, and not got out of the game what we may have. A certain 9 goal game against Coventry being a prime example - sometimes solid defence and a clean sheet is the right decision. If Preston had nicked one back then, yes, maybe we needed to go again, but the second half was a very timid affair in my view and not something where chances created by the Lilywhites were to force SAFC to take any unnecessary chances.

Beyond the hour mark, we saw subs from both sides, to try to impact the game for them and to further solidify our side, as well as rotating off some of the players who had recently rejoined the starting 11 after illness or injury.

Other than Osmajic shouting for the penalty against our skipper as mentioned previously, the changes by Preston didn't really do a lot to improve things from the Lancastrian’s perspective. Sunderland replaced Alese, Rusyn, man of the match Pritchard and Jobe between the 70th and 85th minutes, with the fresh legs effectively helping to close out the match, with a professional and comfortable two-goal win the final outcome.

Sunderland v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

My final thoughts reflecting on the game - I wanted a solid performance with minimal unforced errors, flowing football and ideally a striker scoring rather than Clarke once again bailing us out at the sharp end.

We got all of that, and though we didn't go for the jugular to try to batter a lacklustre Preston side when many fans may have shouted for that, we witnessed a way better performance by Beale’s boys compared to the away day in Rotherham. That was a low bar to overcome, granted, but the performance of the team today was for me a spot on bit of preparation for the cup weekend to come and a challenging set of games post that.

If we can play as we did in the first half against Preston when facing the monochrome clowns from up the road, we will do alright.

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