Teams and Tactics
In terms of changes, Roberto Martinez made 3 from the side that emphatically dismissed Lille on Thursday night with Coleman, Barkley and Eto’o coming in for Osman, Naismith and Hibbert. Barkley started on the left of the attacking midfield trio behind Lukaku, with Eto’o in the number ten spot and McGeady in his usual position on the right in more of a 4-2-3-1.
Sunderland also strayed from their usual line-up with Cattermole’s suspension meaning Bridcutt came in to play the anchor role, with Johnson (right) and Wickham (left) in the wider attacking roles in support of lone forward Steve Fletcher. System wise the Black Cats lined up in a 4-1-4-1.
The Toffees started the game at a high tempo and in the third minute Eto’o combined brilliantly with Lukaku in a series of quick fire one-twos in Sunderland’s final third. Sadly the Cameroon forward’s finish was uncharacteristically lacking in composure and his wayward effort ballooned into the home crowd.
Moments later we received a huge blow when a snide challenge from Gomez ended Barry’s afternoon with the midfield general seemingly suffering a bad knock above his ankle. Darron Gibson came on and although he is right footed was deployed in Barry’s left sided anchor slot.
The injury didn’t derail our momentum, though, and in the first 30 minutes of the first half we were on top to the tune of a 63% share of the ball. Aiden McGeady was motoring after his assist double on Thursday night and he was our star turn in a first half that was high in possession but low in end product. The Irish winger’s first contribution was to fizz in one great cross that was deserving of a forward runner and he then combined nicely with Barkley prior to the youngster blazing high and wide. Haphazard finishing was a theme of the half with Gibson blasting 10 yards over the bar shortly after from a decent position on the edge of Sunderland’s 18 yard line.
At the other end Sunderland initially only threatened sporadically with most of their attacks springing from long Pantilimon kick outs to Wickham down our right with Gomez and Fletcher moving to that side to create overloads. This meant that McGeady – who usually stays further forward when possession is turned over – was having to track back and support Coleman, something which he did pretty well.
If Gareth Barry is out for a while then it’s a problem. The portly Gibson is an equal to Barry in terms of passing short and long, but defensively his positioning is suspect. The protection he offers the backline is incomparable to Barry and an example occurred just prior to half time when he dithered on the ball in his own box, a situation which resulted in Howard having to make a smart stop. The home side did have more of the ball at this point and applied greater pressure on us as the half unfolded but luckily Distin was having his best game of the campaign alongside Jagielka.
After the break the game became more stretched and clear-cut chances began to present themselves more frequently.
Lukaku was presented with a great chance on 50 minutes when Bridcutt horribly miscued a pass to inadvertently play the Belgian in 1v1 with Pantilimon. Sadly the Belgian was enduring a torrid afternoon and his second touch was awful which enabled the gormless looking keeper to easily reclaim the ball at Lukaku’s feet. Shortly after Lukaku was played in again, this time after McCarthy brilliantly regained possession and played in Eto’o down the Sunderland left. The Cameroon forward was at this stage completing running the game and his slide rule pass to Lukaku led to his strike partner beating his man but rather than go across the keeper he got his angles all wrong and the ball sliced into the side netting.
The next couple of substitutions would play a significant part in swinging the game first one way and then the next.
On 64 minutes Buckley came on for the inept Adam Johnson and the former Brighton midfielder’s positive runs would give a much-needed shot in the arm to the home side. Within 4 minutes of his arrival he drew a foul from Baines which presented our hosts with a free kick in a dangerous position. With Howard giving Larsson the entire goal to aim at, O’Shea’s nudge on Barkley enabled the Swede enough space to ping the ball through the wall and into the corner.
The next change seen McGeady – who was arguably our best player to this point – replaced by Naismith. The Scot had little impact on the ball but his positioning inside meant Coleman, whose space on the flank had previously been inhibited by McGeady, now had the full flank to steam into.
For the last 20 minutes Coleman ran his fullback ragged and along with Eto’o was our most enterprising attacking player. On 72 minutes Eto’o, who made more final third passes than anyone on the pitch, picked Coleman out in the box expertly only for the Irish marauder’s pass into Lukaku to be intercepted. Sunderland didn’t heed the warning and a minute later Eto’o repeated the same trick, this time releasing Coleman a few yards closer to goal which resulted in him being wrestled to the ground by Wickham for a penalty. It was an opportunity for redemption that Baines took with both hands, tucking his penalty under Pantilimon for 1-1 with 20 minutes to play.
Sunderland were by now increasingly ragged with 11 men, and you could make a pretty good case given how most of our away games have unfolded under Martinez that the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach would probably have yielded another goal should Gomez, Wickham or both had been dismissed.
That said, we had McCarthy to thank in the final minute for a goal line clearance at the other end from Brown’s header from a Bridcutt delivery. The free kick which initially led to this opportunity came from an error from Lukaku in the Sunderland half and this gaffe was a microcosm of the striker’s afternoon. Against Lille his touch outside the box was much better, playing a part in 2 of the three goals, but here it was abysmal. He lost possession more than any player on the pitch and this invariably led to him then conceding clumsy fouls in trying to atone for the errors. I guess the only way he will improve his back to goal game is by playing more games (and making more errors) but we maybe need to come up with a way in the meantime of mitigating this weakness and playing more to his strengths i.e getting the ball to feet and running at goal in wider areas where this is more space.
Given the fact that this game pitted the two sides who had conceded the most goals from individual errors in the league it was appropriate that both goals came from awful defensive challenges.
This was a game we could and probably should have won given the amount of possession we had in Sunderland’s half and the frequency of openings we had in comparison to our hosts.
The away form in general is good, though, with only Chelsea and Man City having picked up more points on the road than us. If we can get our home form back on track we might be able to start really climbing the table but until that time arrives we will remain marooned in midtable and unfortunately based on our league displays thus far we probably don’t deserve to be any further up the table than we currently are.