Ed was away; he left me his season ticket and thanks to his generosity I watched the lads for free if I don’t count the 8 gallons of petrol, the couple of bottles of wine for Susan (my sister, who put me up) and a couple of pre-match pints for designated driver Paul.
I normally spend the drive up working out the team and this trip was no exception. But it wasn’t easy: Pickford, obviously, then Jones, Kone, Papy (ahead of O’Shea) and Patrick made up my back four, with Kirchoff, getting the decision ahead of an improving and increasingly confident Denayer, to play in front of them. That was a tough decision, but I thought the Hoff just has that bit of elegance about him. You’ll notice I haven’t picked Manquillo – would you?
Compared to the backs, selecting a midfield is really awkward and there are some decisions for Mr. Moyes to make over the next few matches. To my mind we just don’t have anyone who can grip the game from midfield, a rock-solid ball winner and attack generator. I worry about Ndong’s passing (we’d have been murdered had he played against Chelsea) and don’t see him building attacks. Seb – steady and solid but he’s never had that building role and is he fully match fit? I’m not yet sure if Januzaj can cut the mustard wherever he plays but think he merits another go after his performance against Chelsea. That leaves Khazri, and I’d be tempted to give him a try after last season. Borini is nominally a forward but I’d pick him for midfield with the aim of playing him more forward than a true midfield role dictates. So for me it’s Borini, Khazri and Januzaj to start in front of the Hoff. Individually good but I’m not choosing them with great confidence when it comes to a coherent midfield.
When we come to out and out forwards it’s easier as we have only two, Defoe and Anichebe, and they select themselves. Let’s just hope they stay fit.
You have to remember that I do most of my viewing via iffy streams or the scraps MOTD feeds us, and in the three games I’ve been to since last Christmas I’ve seen twenty five different players, including M’Vila, Johnson, Lens, Brown, Yedlin, N’Doye and Danny bloody Graham, none of whom are still on the roster, plus Lyndon Gooch, Steven Peinar, Jack Rodwell, Duncan Watmore and Lee Cattermole, none of whom would be available against Watford.
What this means is that I have no real idea of Sunderland’s playing system and my second guessing David Moyes is pretty pointless. That said, it occupied me until I got to Durham, when some radio programme told me Kirchoff was injured and there were fitness tests for Jones and Anichebe. All in all, playing “guess the Sunderland line up” while driving up the M6 is a good diversion from watching the traffic and wondering if you have to fail an intelligence test before you can drive an Audi or why indicators are optional extras on BMWs.
I wasn’t too far wrong in my line-up. Papy and/or Kone kept out O’Shea, and there were starting places for Januzaj and Borini. Khazri only made it to the bench, however, with Ndong being the preferred choice. That worried me a little, whereas Denayer slotting in for Kirchoff (or maybe he was always going to play) didn’t, while Donald Love, coming in for Jones, was an unknown quantity.
And I have to say I’m still not convinced by Ndong after his showing against Watford. He covered a lot of ground, he got stuck in, he tried to move the ball forward – he deserves some credit and I can’t say Khazri would have been better. But Ndong did misplace passes, he did lose out on some of the fifty-fifty balls I thought he’d get, he did give away possession. He’s not a finished product, not by some way.
Denayer, in contrast, was terrific. He also covered the ground, he got stuck in, he tried to move the ball forward. And, by and large, he succeeded. Where Ndong appears to be improving, Denayer is much more the finished product. He gets my man of the match vote and, on this showing, he’ll give midfield something it has been lacking for years.
Denayer was helped by Borini, who buzzed around like a hornet, and by Janujaz, who showed some lovely touches. Januzaj looked like he could do with building more physical strength – he was knocked off the ball too easily – and his booking was unnecessary but I’d persist with him as he can create space, go past players and find forwards with good passes, one of which led to the goal.
And these three were helped by good displays all round. On one side of the pitch Patrick covered more grass than the pre-match lawn mower. On the other Love did nothing wrong, save for one badly timed slide late on in the game which left him high and dry. In the centre Kone and Papy handled any trouble that came their way competently and then some. What shots got past them were wide or handled well by Pickford, who used his awesome kicking to set Anichebe away time after time. Anichebe is another candidate for man of the match, what a difference he has made.
That leaves Jermain Defoe. He never stops running, he never stops fighting. Just by being on the pitch he stops the opposition backs from getting forward and even when he’s not scoring he’s making chances for others. Van Aarnholt benefited this time but Anichebe came oh so close after a deft touch from Defoe*.
At the start of 2016, at Spurs, I saw Defoe getting crowded out by two six-foot backs who didn’t have to do anything else. Now Anichebe’s presence gives him much more freedom and the whole team’s gaining from it. It’s one reason why we came away with three points in what was my first visit to the SOL since we did our sixth in a row.
And it wasn’t a bad way for the home crowd to end their year.
*Malcolm says it wasn’t Defoe who got the last touch. Hey, ho, who cares, we won.