This week’s Durham Times column was penned by Craig Clark. It was first published in the paper on Thursday.
Sunderland’s game plan going into Sunday’s derby could not be more obvious: keep things tight and look to exploit Newcastle’s weaknesses; challenge them to dictate the game and hit them on the break; continue defending as robustly as they did for the vast majority of the defeat at the Hawthorns on Saturday, while moving the ball around as quickly and creatively when in possession as they did in the first half of the same game.
Newcastle United showed what they can do to a team who take their eye off the opposition and simply go for it. At 3-2 down, Norwich City were very much in the game, but by removing Alexander Tettey and in doing so replacing a defensive midfielder with an attacking one, Alex Neil acted about as naively as a manager new to the Premier League could. Newcastle, with their superior players, took full advantage.
Whilst Newcastle’s squad will be buoyed by demolishing Norwich 6-2, Allardyce had to make full use of the controversy surrounding West Bromwich Albion’s winner on Saturday to keep his player’s chins off the floor. I’m sure he’ll have wanted Costel Pantilimon to do better with the goal, whether he was fouled or not, but the debate surrounding the incident allowed him to shift focus onto the officials in a way I can’t remember a Sunderland manager doing for quite some time.
Now that he’s had another week to work with his squad, he’ll have a better idea of their strengths and weaknesses; he’ll also have been studying Newcastle carefully. If I was Allardyce, I’d bring Jeremain Lens back into the team after suspension, dropping Jordi Gomez to the bench. Gomez was brilliant in the first half at West Brom, but I’d like to see a combative three of Sebastian Larsson, Lee Cattermole and Yann M’Vila in the Sunderland engine room match up to Jack Colback and whoever partners him in the Newcastle midfield.
That trio don’t just offer work rate, energy and tackles off the ball, they’re all capable with it at their feet too. Whoever comes out on top in that midfield battle, not in terms of possession, but sheer physical dominance, will probably go on to win the game.
Meanwhile, reintroducing Lens will give the side additional pace and with a reinvigorated Steven Fletcher through the middle and Fabio Borini making a nuisance of himself on the left, there’s enough reason to think Sunderland can counter effectively against their local rivals.
The back four were sat deeper on the weekend and immediately looked more comfortable, protected well by the midfield and marshalled by two stalwarts in John O’Shea and Younes Kaboul. Dick Advocaat’s insistence on trying to play open, expansive, attacking football left a set of reasonable, if not brilliant defenders, looking like hapless League 2 players. Sometimes you have to accept the limitations of your squad, something Advocaat seemed unwilling to do.
There’s every chance Newcastle will be over confident after Sunday’s win, which might lead them to attack Sunderland in a way that could play into Allardyce’s hands. Daryl Janmaat is a solid, attacking full back, but if Moussa Sissoko plays in front of him, he won’t receive much cover. A deep lying Sunderland will surely look to exploit any space on the Newcastle right through Lens or Borini and the supporting DeAndre Yedlin.
Although I’ve spent more time than usual focusing on the opposition, I’ve done so because that’s exactly what I expect a wily, experienced manager like Allardyce to be doing. I also think it’s the right approach and will give us the best chance of not only making it an unprecedented six derby wins in a row, but also a giving ourselves fighting chance of retaining our Premier League status.