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Following Sunderland's disastrous trip to the south-east last Monday evening, Steve Bruce hoped for a response when his side welcomed West Bromwich Albion to the Stadium of Light on Saturday. In a sense, he got one, but not before the Black Cats had surrendered two goals to their visitors within the first five minutes of the game. 2-2 it would eventually end, with deep concerns still looming large on Wearside.
Shorn of Titus Bramble, through his suspension for alleged misdemeanours, and David Vaughan, through illness, Steve Bruce was forced into two changes. In came Michael Turner and Lee Cattermole respectively, with the latter retaking the captain's armband from John O'Shea. The manager's seeming confusion with where to play Stephane Sessegnon endured once more, with the Benin international sometimes playing alongside Nicklas Bendtner, and at other times assuming a deeper, roaming role.
Holes In The Middle
A very key factor in Sunderland's initial troubles against the Baggies were the gaping holes they allowed to open up in front of their two centre-backs.
Both Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner had poor games in midfield. In truth, neither or them looked like they were aware of what the other was doing at times, and particularly in that opening twenty minutes.
Cattermole roamed around looking somewhat frantic, yet producing little in the way of winning the ball for his side. Gardner meanwhile seemed only intent on helping out when his team were advancing with the ball; his defensive contribution was almost nil in the opening half.
It is ironic then, that Gardner's sole notable tackle of the opening half led directly to the visitors' second goal. Whilst no doubt unfortunate for Sunderland, it cannot be seen as a coincidence that the space directly behind Gardner was entirely vacant, and thus the ball was allowed to split the defence and Shane Long duly went on to score. This was a prime example of how the two seem to lack communication; both often appear to do as they please when without the ball, which inevitably leaves gaping holes in the Sunderland midfield.
In fairness to Cattermole, he at least never hid. Indeed, his lack of hiding led to him being hauled off well before the end, with Bruce fearing that his captain would be sent off otherwise.
As for Gardner, this performance was another one in a series of poor displays (Stoke aside) since he joined the club. Aside from a neat turn and shot toward the end of the first half, the ex-Birmingham man was largely anonymous. Worse still, as well as displaying a lack of positional sense, he often made very little attempt to show a willingness to be given the ball.
Fortunately for Sunderland, and Bruce, these two did tighten up somewhat from about 30 minutes onwards – though mainly Cattermole. The captain held his position better and thus limited the earlier room that had been allowed for the visitors, but his much vaunted disciplinary problems led to him being replaced by Jack Colback on 70 minutes.
A Sign Of Things To Come?
Aside from the reaction shown by his players to come back from two down, Steve Bruce will have been buoyed by the partnership between Stephane Sessegnon and Nicklas Bendtner that seems to be growing with each game.
Bendtner was easily Sunderland's man of the match on Saturday; his Arsenal pedigree could not have been more evident, displayed with numerous effortlessly good first touches, and a blend of vision and spacial awareness that was sorely lacking in many of his teammates.
He was helped greatly, however, by the diminutive Sessegnon. Though it is true that his final ball still must improve, Sessegnon was again impressive against the Baggies; he and Bendtner linked up very well at times, and (though obviously aided by two quickfire Sunderland goals) together they helped ensure the visitors were unable to regain their early momentum.
It was not just passing to one another, but the two's movement that helped Sunderland get themselves into a position whereby they were the only side that looked like nicking a crucial third goal. Sessegnon's clever running of the channels was a constant thorn in West Brom's side and, more importantly, it allowed Bendtner to act as a central focal point instead of him having to go foraging for the ball himself – a task he managed admirably.
Following a disastrous opening twenty minutes, Sunderland didn't actually play badly against Roy Hodgson's side. In the second half, they were the only side that looked like scoring.
However those opening stages came as a result of some worrying trends that are starting to appear. With each passing week, Lee Cattermole looks less and less cut out for the cut and thrift of Premier League football; he is too hasty into the tackle, too rambunctious in his endless forays in search of the ball – often he ends up merely chasing shadows in desperation. This may seem harsh, and perhaps it is, but the captain currently appears to be a man trying too hard to right his perceived wrong. Cattermole would be far better suited to taking a back seat, performing the unflattering job of holding his position throughout the game, and waiting for the the chance to nick the ball as opposed to charging around after it.
Of course, some argue that the latter is where Cattermole sees joy – forcing mistakes by harrying and hassling the opposition. The problem with this is that, should Bruce agree with this verdict, then Craig Gardner is a terrible partner for Cattermole. Gardner's positional sense on Saturday was poor at best, and his nonchalant manner when not in possession suggested he only truly perks up when attacking opportunities present themselves.
Away from midfield travails, Sunderland's penchant for calamitous set-piece defending once again reared its ugly head. The first goal was a lesson in how not to defend what should have been a relatively easy free-kick to deal with; the minute James Morrison somehow heading the ball past a stranded Simon Mignolet.
To end on a more positive note, the partnership between the two frontmen seems to be sparking into life, whilst the side displayed an element of 'bouncebackability' that many fans feared had disappeared completely.
Next up for the Black Cats is a trip to Arsenal. With the Gunners having endured a torrid start to the season, it would be wrong for Bruce and his men to not fancy their chances of nicking a cheeky point or three. However, if they are to do so, the manager has some serious things to work on in the next two weeks' training.