Analysis: Kone and Kaboul partnership key to Sunderland

Younes Kaboul surges forward in Sunderland's defeat at Manchester City. Picture by Frank Reid
Younes Kaboul surges forward in Sunderland's defeat at Manchester City. Picture by Frank Reid
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The big talking point at the Etihad Stadium pre-match on Saturday was whether Pep Guardiola was going to drop England No 1 Joe Hart.

Yet, it was the Sunderland team sheet that caused the biggest surprise when the two sides were announced.

Lamine Kone was in, while David Moyes handed debuts to Donald Love and Lynden Gooch, with John O’Shea in the holding midfield role.

Wahbi Khazri and Jeremain Lens were both named on the bench. It was a brave and bold team selection by Moyes, who will put his faith in the younger players.

Hart was dropped by Manchester City and he cut a moody figure as he made his way onto the pitch for the warm-ups.

His mood was in stark contrast to the carnival atmosphere inside the stadium for the first Premier League game of Guardiola’s reign.

We had large inflatable balloons, huge flags, tickertape exploding as the players made their way onto the pitch – the Premier League was back with a bang.

And Kone was back too. Alongside Younes Kaboul despite a turbulent week off the pitch.

Everton lodged an unsuccessful £18million bid for the centre-back, who then came out with a statement claiming he wanted to leave after Sunderland had failed to honour the promise of a new deal.

Problem was, Moyes quickly confirmed that the club had promised him a new deal – on September 1 – putting the ball squarely back in the court of Kone and his agents.

Moyes said post-match that when he approached Kone with the statement he is supposed to have issued, the 27-year-old said he had not seen it, never mind written it – and that he expects him to stay on Wearside.

Time will tell on that front, but the saga will drag on.

Should Everton come back in with a big bid then Sunderland may find it hard to turn down, especially with new recruits needed.

What the game at the Etihad did show, though, was just how important Kone is. His partnership with Kaboul is key.

The outstanding Kaboul was actually the stand-out defender; vocal, well organised and making several booming clearances with all parts of his body.

The pair of them work well together and Moyes’s influence on the training pitches shone through too, despite the relatively small window to work with his new players.

Sunderland – rocked by the early Sergio Aguero penalty – looked solid at the back, restricting City to few clear-cut chances.

The hosts dominated the possession but did very little with it to harm the Black Cats, with Willy Caballero the busier of the two keepers.

You can’t judge any team after just one game, never mind a side hit hard by injuries to key players like Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff.

But there were plenty of positive aspects to Sunderland’s play and Moyes’s approach, with former boss Sam Allardyce watching on from the comfort of the director’s box.

The new England manager will have noted – as if he needed reminding – Jermain Defoe’s qualities. The 33-year-old looked sharp, with good movement and hold-up play.

And he scored. Again.

The fitness levels are also where they should be. That sounds basic but it is in stark contrast to the start of last season, with Sunderland initially struggling to keep up with sides.

Gooch impressed in midfield, his energy, pace and willingness to go at the defenders made him Sunderland’s biggest threat first half.

Fellow debutant Love, who started in place of injured Billy Jones, had a very shaky start against City’s array of attacking talent.

You couldn’t fault his workrate though and he will improve with a run of games. But right-back remains an area that still needs strengthening.

Midfield too, while another striker is a must before the window closes.

There remains a lot of work to be done.

After six weeks of pre-season work, the last thing Sunderland needed was to gift an early goal, with left-back Patrick van Aanholt needlessly bringing down Raheem Sterling inside the box.

Sunderland should have had a corner in the build-up, but the officials missed it and Aguero made them pay four minutes in, coolly converting from the spot.

City were dominant. Sunderland couldn’t get out of their own half.

But crucially, they didn’t cave and almost equalised.

Gooch’s sharp cross to Fabio Borini was just behind the Italian striker, while Defoe – who had a weak penalty claim turned down – then saw his instinctive first-time shot saved.

The start of the second half followed a similar pattern, with City dominating possession but doing little to penetrate.

City should have been 2-0 up through Aguero, but he screwed his effort wide. A bad miss. And City were made to pay.

Moyes turned to Adnan Januzaj for his debut and Khazri from the bench and the added impetus worked, with Defoe popping up with a fine equaliser.

Borini laid the ball off to Rodwell, whose deft pass released Defoe inside the penalty area, Defoe calmly stroking the ball past Caballero.

It looked as if Moyes had played a tactical blinder, using the legs of youth early in the game to help contain City before unleashing the playmakers late on to snatch something.

It didn’t pan out that way though. Paddy McNair came on for Defoe as Sunderland packed the midfield.

Sunderland couldn’t hold on. Jesus Navas burst down the right-hand side and produced a wicked cross that wasn’t dealt with properly, McNair helplessly nodding into his own net.

Opening day despair but plenty of positives from which to build.

Further signings, though, are key.