Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff shone brightest as Sunderland finally gave Sam Allardyce a solid defensive display on the road at Norwich.
Black Cats finally tighten up
Sam Allardyce has been crying out for a clean sheets and two in their last three games has given the Black Cats a great chance to pull off another escape.
Prior to going behind on 65 minutes last week, Sunderland shackled leaders Leicester, nullifying the threat of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. One lapse in concentration, though, was punished by Vardy and the hosts then wilted at the Stadium of Light.
Fast forward six days, which were almost certainly spent working on defensive shape, and the focus was complete. Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone worked in tandem, protected by the shield of Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff, meaning Vito Mannone had only to field crosses into his box.
That defensive dilligence will need to be increased further still next Sunday when they face the speed and flair of Arsenal, but the last three games have offered Allardyce encouragement that he simply could not cling too before spring arrived.
Sunderland win it in midfield
Norwich captain Gary O’Neil and Jonny Howson may be fine technicians but the hosts lost the midfield battle to the intelligence of Jan Kirchhoff and the graft and desire of Lee Cattermole.
Danny Drinkwater got the better of Cattermole at the Stadium of Light last week, and the Sunderland skipper played like he had a point to prove at Carrow Road.
His will to win, while never questioned, was clearly evident in the way he celebrated a second-half goal-line clearance, while moments after, he demonstrated his leadership qualities by pulling Patrick van Aanholt away from a confrontation with Andre Wisdom that offered no positive outcome for Sunderland.
Kirchhoff’s positioning and reading of the game complimented Cattermole’s ratting in the centre of the park, with the former Bayern Munich man robbing Sebastian Bassong to trigger the move that led to Sunderland’s crucial second goal. After a shocking debut appearance as a third centre-half at Tottenham in February, Kirchhoff has been one of Allardyce’s best performers.
The two Sunderland central midfielders allow their two rapid full-backs to bomb forward, with Van Aanholt seemingly sharing defensive and attacking duties with Wahbi Kahzri in the first half and Duncan Watmore in the second. With Jermain Defoe playing through the middle on his own, the likes of Fabio Borini and Yann M’Villa can break forward, safe in the knowledge that Kirchhoff and Cattermole have the back door closed behind them.
Neil too nice?
Alex Neil has made very few headlines this season with his comments, and you might say that his honesty and perspective offers a refreshing contrast to some of his bigger-name counterparts. But the fiery Scot perhaps could have let more of his personality shine through this week in an effort to rouse his players.
Allardyce has never been afraid to grab the stick rather than the carrot, and that approach in the wake of the Leicester defeat certainly worked. Neil went for a rather more gentle approach and it showed.
“We’d be in a really great position if we win, but we’ve just got to enjoy it,” was Neil’s pre-match rallying call. He also claimed that Norwich “have been involved in high-pressure situations quite a lot of times since I’ve been here,” but in reality, the triumph over Newcastle a fortnight ago was the only occasion since Christmas that the Canaries have proved their mettle.
Neil knows his squad better than anyone, so perhaps his softly-softly approach in public recently is down to what he has identified as a lack of mental strength in his squad. With Sunderland – only a point behind with a game in hand – now buoyant and breathing right down their necks, Neil simply must rouse a reaction from the flapping Canaries as Arsenal and Manchester United lie in wait.
Premier League clash, Championship class
Allardyce warned his players this week that they won’t find a better club should the Black Cats be relegated. The same could be said of a large swathe of the Norwich squad.
The high stakes can excuse some of the poor quality on display but for much of the clash of Carrow Road, it was difficult to distinguish it from a Championship meeting: lots of pace, power and desire, but very little technical class.
Regardless of what the individuals and their agents might believe, it is hard to see more than three players from either squad that would be of real interest to any club in next season’s top flight.