A ropey first half followed by a much-improved second
When Ryan Hardie gave Trai Hume the runaround before chipping Anthony Patterson to give the visitors the lead following a calamitous mix up at the heart of the Sunderland defence, a familiar feeling of ‘here we go again’ seemed to be swirling around a fog-bound Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon.
After all, these are the kinds of games in which we’ve sometimes come a cropper, against sides who in theory we ought to be beating reasonably comfortably, and Hardie’s goal came towards the end of a first half in which there’d been no lack of effort, but things hadn’t quite clicked and the frustration was slowly mounting.
However, despite that setback. the hopes for a big second half performance were realised, as the Lads set about Plymouth with relish after the break and ensured that another positive step forward was taken after last weekend’s gutsy draw with Middlesbrough.
Goals of real quality from Pierre Ekwah, Jack Clarke and Jobe were enough to overturn the deficit, and the level of aggression and desire on display was substantially greater than we’d seen before the interval.
Nazariy Rusyn’s boundless energy seemed to rub off on his teammates, and with Dan Neil effortlessly controlling things in the middle (more on that later) we were able to navigate our way through the remainder of the game having solved a potentially tricky puzzle and burnished our top six credentials even further.
We’re yet to piece together a ‘complete’ performance under Michael Beale, but that’s okay, because there’s plenty to work with and some encouraging signs that he’s starting to get to grips with the job and reshape the team into a more purposeful outfit.
Seven points from our last three games is an encouraging return as Beale continues to oversee slow and steady progress from his team, and maybe, just maybe, he’s starting to find himself increasingly in credit with a previously sceptical fanbase.
Dan Neil stamps his authority on another game
At this stage, the only people who would attempt to deny Neil’s talent and influence on all that’s good about Sunderland are the blinkered, the edgy, and those who prefer the sight of their midfielders caked in mud and ruddy-faced after an afternoon of thud and blunder.
Simply put, Neil is a gem of a footballer and the way he strode through this game with the poise of a veteran (which he technically is, by Sunderland standards) was quite something.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, because he does it so often, but the sight of Neil controlling things with such ease never ceases to impress, and he’s grown into the role of a ‘senior’ midfielder with a level of maturity that’s testament to both his own hard work and the efforts of the coaching staff.
Against Plymouth he never looked hurried and he never lost his composure, and how he kept things ticking over — playing accurate passes with aplomb and not shirking his defensive duties — offered more proof that this young man is destined for a long and fruitful career at a very high level of football.
Enjoy the sight of Neil in the red and white stripes, folks, and cherish every inch-perfect pass that he makes, because he’s destined for the Premier League this summer, whether that’s with Sunderland or on the back of a big money move to a top flight side.
Nazariy Rusyn empties the tank once again
Following his late heroics against Middlesbrough last weekend the Ukrainian wasn’t able to notch another goal on Saturday, but how his movement, sharpness and willingness to chase added another dimension to our attack was hugely important.
Rusyn is a real buzzsaw of a forward and the only reason he failed to get onto the scoresheet against Plymouth was because the incisive pass didn’t arrive at the right moment. In contrast to Mason Burstow’s passive display at the Riverside, Rusyn was always looking for openings and eager to keep the Pilgrims’ defence occupied.
On this evidence, it’s impossible to argue that he shouldn’t be our first choice centre forward, and I’m curious to see whether Michael Beale might be tempted to field him in tandem with Hemir at some stage, not least to try and discover whether the qualities of the two players can compliment each other and open up yet more possibilities.
Hopefully Rusyn’s more settled personal circumstances are helping him to thrive on the pitch, and he’s rapidly becoming a real favourite with the Wearside faithful.
Jobe makes his mark after coming off the bench
There seems to have been a consensus in recent weeks that last summer’s arrival from Birmingham City has looked slightly jaded and in need of a rest, so it made perfect sense to see his name listed among the substitutes for yesterday’s game.
Bellingham’s talent and potential are in no doubt, but his workload does need to be managed and despite Kristjaan Speakman’s claims to the contrary, utilising him from the bench on Saturday was a perfectly logical thing to do, especially with the games we’ve got coming up, in which he’ll doubtless play a key role.
Entering the fray in the second half, Bellingham took his chance in spectacular fashion when he curled home a beautiful twenty-yarder to make the game safe and ensure that nerves wouldn’t be jangling as the clock ticked down.
It’s probably a fair assumption that the youngster felt perfectly ready to play, such is the natural enthusiasm of players at such an age, but using him in a slightly different role worked perfectly, and it would’ve been an important experience for Bellingham as he discovered how he can have an impact on games even if he’s not picked in the starting eleven.