Ryan Lowe has struggled to find his best side at times this season and with such a demanding set of fixtures in as many days, therefore decided to opt for thre changes from the side that lost 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday.
Jordan Storey, Mads Frøkjær-Jensen and Ched Evans all returned to the starting lineup, with Lowe opting to play in a 4-1-4-1 formation similarly to how Sunderland have set up at times this season.
Mick Beale also made changes following Sunderland’s 1-1 draw at Rotherham — Aji Alese returned following his lengthy spell on the sidelines, Alex Pritchard was restored after his brief illness and Nazirly Rusyn started upfront for Sunderland ending their one-month spell without a number nine in the starting XI.
Beale opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation as he has done in his previous games at the helm.
Aji Alese returned to make his season debut following a hefty spell out for Sunderland that required the defender to have surgery last season.
As Sunderland’s only orthodox left footed fullback currently fit, Alese’s inclusion made a huge difference to Sunderland’s overall shape.
By giving Clarke an overlapping option, Sunderland’s natural width and balance was far more prevalent from the first whistle and despite Alese only making it to the 70-minute mark, Sunderland had comfortable control by this point. Aji was a welcome addition to the back four, completing 70% of his passes whilst also making an important block in the second half to keep Sunderland’s clean sheet.
Starting a Striker
Much has been said in recent weeks about the disappearance of Rusyn from Sunderland’s team following his £2.5m arrival in the summer, however, the Ukrainian forward was handed his first start under Beale to lead the line for Sunderland.
Instantly Sunderland’s shape looked far more organised and with Rusyn able to play on the shoulder of the last defender, Preston’s back line were forced to drop deeper creating space for Pritchard and Jobe to receive the ball into the channels.
Fortunately, Rusyn’s only shot resulted in a goal however the movement shown in the build-up is exactly why fans have been crying out for a striker to start. Off the ball, Rusyn also won 2/4 aerial duels and 2/6 ground duels demonstrating his willingness to work for the team.
Alex Pritchard demonstrated his attacking quality in this game, slotting in on the right wing for the injured Patrick Roberts, although often drifting inside and allowing Trai Hume to occupy that wide-right space of the field.
This was perfectly showcased through his goal — Rusyn had forced the defence deeper, Ekwah was then able to find Pritchard in the half-space before he turned and slammed the ball into the net from 25 yards.
Looking at the stats above, interestingly Pritchard’s ability to generate shooting opportunities for himself or teammates per 90’ ranks highest in the division.
The true demonstration of a traditional number ten and when paired with his ability to play threaded balls to a running Rusyn, could be the key to getting Sunderland’s strikers firing on a more consistent basis moving forward.
Sunderland found themselves in a comfortable 2-0 lead at the break so following halftime, Beale opted to take a more cautious approach to the second half by slowing the tempo, holding a structured shape and conserving stamina.
This isn’t something Sunderland have had the benefit of doing this season and should be praised more than revered as it demonstrates that when we’re able to score early this young side can put teams away.
Interestingly, Preston are the first side to visit the Stadium of Light this season that outranked Sunderland in xG, possession and attempts at the end of the game.
While these stats may come across as misleading, most of Preston’s work came once the game was already out of reach.
Partners in Crime
Since returning from injury, it’s taken a few weeks for Pierre Ekwah to get back to his usual high standards, however this game was a perfect example of the partnership formed between himself and Dan Neil in the middle of the park.
Both players now know when to go or sit, Neil is particularly impressive in his defensive actions winning 4/7 ground duels and his progressive carries with 2/4 dribbles.
Ekwah on the other hand is excellent at playing progressive reverse passes into space as he did for his assist, completing 8 passes into the final third and winning 6/7 ground duels.
Both players have developed games that complement one another very well and following some confusion earlier in the season, look much more assured operating as a double pivot than they had last season.
With the small matter of a Wear-Tyne Derby and a trip to Ipswich on the horizon, in some ways it was good that Sunderland were able to collect three points without having to get out of second gear in this one.
Players will be exhausted following a hectic schedule and the slower tempo in the second half suited Sunderland more so kudos to Beale for thinking ahead.
With news on Patrick Roberts’ injury yet to be confirmed, Alex Pritchard may have just cemented himself a start in the biggest game of Sunderland’s season so far.