TALKING TACTICS NEW
ITV's decision to broadcast Sunderland's FA Cup third round trip to Peterborough on Sunday suggested they fancied an upset. Given the Black Cats' recent performance in cup ties, it was hard to blame them. However, the broadcasters were to be left disappointed. Martin O'Neill's resurgent side ran out comfortable 2-0 winners, making that now five wins from the Ulsterman's seven games in charge.
In much the same way Steve Bruce lined his side up at Brighton in the League Cup in August, O'Neill opted for a 4-5-1 formation that was lacking an actual striker. Stephane Sessegnon was chosen to lead the line on his own, though - in a departure from that summer tie - the five positioned behind him were by no means 'flat'. Lee Cattermole again took up a deep role, leaving David Vaughan and Craig Gardner in front of him, who were themselves flanked by forward-thinking wingers Seb Larsson and James McClean.
At the back, Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley returned to the full-back positions. Matthew Kilgallon and John O'Shea continued in central defence, while Simon Mignolet once again took up position in goal.
First Half Recon Mission
The opening 45 minutes saw a decidedly drab affair played out. To the commentators' surprise (once ITV had sorted their act out and we could hear them, that is), the visitors were more than happy to afford possession to their hosts, inviting them to attack if they so pleased.
This may initially have seemed a negative ploy by O'Neill, but it soon became clear that his side were simply getting the measure of their opponents. Peterborough enjoyed a sizeable amount of the ball in the opening thirty minutes - roughly 60% of possession - but were unable to do much with it. The lively Paul Taylor had a mazy run but his shot couldn't trouble Mignolet, while two efforts from Tommy Rowe couldn't find the target either.
In amongst this waiting game, Sunderland looked dangerous on the break. Craig Gardner, deployed in midfield as opposed to the full-back position of recent weeks, looked particularly spritely and burst forward to support Sessegnon frequently. His stinging effort could only be palmed away by Posh 'keeper Joe Lewis.
As the half, and the game, progressed, the visitors upped the ante. With the break imminent, Sunderland started to keep possession better - Lee Cattermole was again excellent - and gradually started to move from their initial deep positions into much higher ones. The half ended with the red and whites on top - many of the Peterborough side looked nervous in comparison.
Wingers Are Key - Again
Though infinitely more goodwill currently resides in the Sunderland support over O'Neill than it did over Bruce back in August, many fans at half-time were calling for the new manager to throw on a striker, and to not risk the same demoralising mistake of his predecessor.
It was easy to see why. Sessegnon had a poor game overall. He looked unsuited to holding the line against a physical back four, while his first touch was unusually poor and often his passes went awry.
However, O'Neill's strategy was not reliant upon the lone striker having an outstanding game. Instead, just as in previous games, he put great emphasis on his midfielders getting forward in support - particularly the two wingers.
That Larsson and McClean were the game's goalscorers tells its own story. McClean's direct nature was in evidence once again, as he powered forward at every opportunity. His rasping drive off the bar in the opening half was a sign of things to come.
Though Sessegnon was indeed poor, he still proved himself enough of a nuisance that the hosts felt the need to keep track of him in the middle. This opened up room on the wings for both Larsson and McClean to exploit - something which they did consistently in the second half. That, combined with neat triangles of passing between Cattermole, Gardner and Vaughan - all three of whom proved adept at nicking the ball with relative ease when Peterborough attempted to build attacks - meant that Sunderland moved into the fourth round without much trouble.
Both of Sunderland's goals came from set plays. Larsson's opener was a cleverly executed cross-cum-shot that beat everyone before nestling in the bottom corner, before the Swede then turned provider, with his corner being headed home by McClean.
This merely underlined another change since Martin O'Neill's arrival on Wearside - Sunderland no longer look helpless when faced with, or taking, set-pieces.
In recent games, and again on Sunday, the side has employed a zonal marking strategy. Though often met with derision by purists, noone could argue it hasn't been effective for the Black Cats. There have been times when free headers have been gifted, and only opposition profligacy has stopped the net from bulging, but for the most part Sunderland have looked assured when defending such situations.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the field, they have looked hugely dangerous. Seb Larsson's arrival in the summer had already heralded a greater free-kick threat - the Black Cats have now scored five goals direct from free-kicks this season; they managed only three in the entire period from August 2007 to May 2011 - but now they look much more organised when attacking the ball in the air from both free-kicks and corners too. Nicklas Bendtner and Wes Brown's headed goals at QPR signalled a change in the Sunderland threat, and Sunday continued the trend.
This was a comfortable victory for Sunderland. Peterborough started well but looked nervy for the most part, and after that initial 'sizing up' period, they never looked like troubling Simon Mignolet.
The manner of victory would have been pleasing for all involved with Sunderland - especially given their recent cup woes. They never looked in any real danger, even when affording the hosts much of the ball for the opening stages. The final possession stats perhaps tell the tale of the visitors dominance. From having only 40% of possession in the opening half hour, they eventually ended the game with overall possession of 59% - a sign of how much they dominated the second 45 minutes.