Despite the main focus of the weekend being on the clash between two of the title chasing powerhouses Chelsea and Liverpool, Sunderland took their chance to shine in the Autumn sun at Old Trafford with a fantastic, spirited 2-2 draw against the champions. After a lively summer at the Stadium of Light in which a new manager and new investment was brought to the club, many Sunderland fans can start to see the potential the huge north-east club has possessed for so long. Possibly an unpopular choice because of his Geordie roots, Steve Bruce has certainly proved popular in the fantastic signings and tactics which have been employed this season, combining his experience in the transfer market to sign players he wants to fit into a hard-working and efficient system.
Sunderland visited Old Trafford after an enthralling 5-2 victory over Wolves the previous weekend with Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones in superb form, scoring 11 goals between them this season and offering an insight into the wonderful striking partnership blossoming between the pair. The bold nature of Bruce was shown in the Black Cats line-up with a sense of taking the game to Manchester United with a tough edge to the side. Jones and Bent started up front with former Marseille man Lorik Cana and the young exuberance of Lee Cattermole making up a strong central midfield duo to match and combat the likes of Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Paul Scholes. The way Bruce attacked United in key areas of the field has to be respected and looked upon as the best way to try and grasp any initiative at Old Trafford. The deftness of touch of Andy Reid and Steed Malbranque helped the creativity of the side, added to the sheer clinical nature of Jones and Bent in front of goal.
The formation signified a feeling of no fear in the Sunderland squad and that they were confident of getting something at the fortress of Old Trafford. The Black Cats got off to the perfect start and incredibly the goal reflected their dominant start against the champions. Cattermole passed a wonderfully crisp ball into the feet of Bent who instinctively turned away from Irishman John O’Shea before rifling an unstoppable shot beyond Ben Foster. The confidence was seemingly oozing out of Bent as he showed the awareness and ability to turn and shoot in one move to score a fantastic opening goal, and what a time to do it – in front of England boss Fabio Capello.
The first half saw United rarely threaten the Sunderland goalkeeper Craig Gordon – a phenomenal rarity at Old Trafford these days. This was down to the organisation and tactics of the Sunderland side, defending from the front at all times and breaking quickly when they retrieved the ball from the hosts. Cana and Cattermole were outstanding in terms of work-rate, tackling and simply getting into the faces of players who thrive on time on the ball such as Scholes. The statistic which showed the dominance of the Sunderland midfield was the tackle completion rate of 87.1% compared to United’s 70.6% – an unbelievable success reflecting the commitment and toughness of the north-east side. Malbranque and Reid also allowed the two central midfielders to play more defensively as they both broke with pace and excitement along with Bent and Jones to create indecision in the United defence and cause a significant threat on going forward.
No doubt the hair-dryer came out in the United dressing room at the half-time break as the Red Devils came out a much more confident and dangerous side. Anderson was brought on to add more energy and running into midfield and Dimitar Berbatov levelled the scoring with an excellent scissor-kick effort on 51 minutes. However if Sunderland fans were thinking their side were going to sit back on a point, they were wrong, as the Black Cats continued to play with freedom and passion. They were rewarded when Reid’s inviting cross was headed into the net by Jones after a strong and powerful jump saw the forward climb above the on rushing United keeper Foster. The thrilling nature of Manchester United comebacks however always looked likely to bite Sunderland from behind as in added time Anton Ferdinand deflected Patrice Evra’s shot into his own net – a cruel blow for Bruce, Ferdinand and the Sunderland squad.
Sunderland can be seen as a sleeping giant, possibly being woken by the arrival of Bruce. The ex-Wigan man is moulding the north-east side into a team ready to fight, scrap and work hard with that added edge of quality which all good Premier League sides need. Despite disappointing results at Burnley and Stoke, Sunderland fans can be excited for the season ahead and possibly become the side they have always threatened to be.
Premier League analysis
Week 1 – August 15/16, 2009
Week 2 – August 18/19, 2009
Week 3 – August 22/23, 2009
Week 4 – August 29/30, 2009
Week 5 – September 12/13, 2009
Week 6 – September 19/20, 2009
Week 7 – September 26/27, 2009
Week 8 – October 3/4, 2009