Big-match verdict: Positive signs of much-needed upgrade

Lee Cattermole lets fly against Manchester United yesterday. Picture by Corrina Atkinson
Lee Cattermole lets fly against Manchester United yesterday. Picture by Corrina Atkinson
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IF SUNDERLAND complete three appropriate signings by 11pm next Monday, then Lee Congerton can reflect on a job well done.

Not everyone will agree with that statement.

Some will argue there should have been a far greater influx of signings after the bulk of this squad has been engulfed in a relegation battle for the past two seasons.

Gus Poyet, himself, would probably share that view, given the greed for fresh faces which seemingly every manager boasts.

Others will insist Sunderland should have followed the lead of other clubs by sticking two fingers up to Financial Fair Play and whacking the windfall from a second season of the Premier League TV deal on overhauling the squad.

Hang the club’s debt or potential punishments if Sunderland somehow qualify for Europe. If the Black Cats fall out of the Premier League, then the financial repercussions will be far greater than a slap on the wrist for over-spending.

Both arguments hold some merit.

But Congerton’s remit has been to bring in quality, quantity and Premier League know-how, while doing that on a modest budget.

Given some of the fees being splashed out around in the domestic market this summer, that has been akin to mission impossible.

Yet while first impressions on players inevitably eager to impress their new employers can often be misleading, the early signs are that Congerton’s recruits will provide an upgrade on the previous squad.

Will Buckley made that point yesterday with some aplomb.

Buckley was one of the least heralded among the summer spending spree by supporters. For some reason, there seems to be a stigma attached to recruits from the Championship these days.

But after chasing Buckley for eight months, Poyet was clearly desperate to be reunited with his former Brighton stage-hand. He showed why on his first Premier League start after replacing the sick Adam Johnson in the starting XI.

Buckley was given a helping hand by the Manchester United back-line, whose fragility was evident from the first 60 seconds. However lofty Louis van Gaal’s reputation and managerial CV may be, Ashley Young is no wing-back.

Yet before he tired in the second half, Buckley’s willingness to run at defenders, pace and decision-making immediately endeared him to the Stadium of Light and banished any pre-conceptions among the doubters.

Sunderland needed that in their armoury.

For all the possession-based football Poyet may be able to polish, or the trickery of a Johnson, a quick winger who can take on defenders with the ball at his feet remains a precious asset.

Buckley twice set up chances that Connor Wickham should have made more of – the first coming after an electric slalom run past two defenders before an inch-perfect through-ball – and won the corner from which Jack Rodwell levelled proceedings.

Like Buckley, Rodwell began his home career as a Sunderland player on the perfect note.

Rodwell remains nowhere near match-sharp after starting only his second Premier League game in 11 months, yet he was certainly better than on his debut at West Brom.

It will take him a month or two to really get up to speed, but the signs are there – the way he escaped from the half-hearted Antonio Valencia before heading home Seb Larsson’s corner was an indication of what is in the England international’s locker.

The goal understandably meant a lot to Rodwell. It’s hardly surprising given the size of Sunderland’s investment in him.

But while Rodwell, Buckley, Santiago Vergini and even Patrick van Aanholt – who reacted well after giving Valencia too much room for the opener – have adapted well to their new surroundings, it was an old hand in Sunderland’s side that again demonstrated his huge worth.

No-one in Sunderland’s squad has been at the Stadium of Light longer than Lee Cattermole.

Under Poyet though, Cattermole is making good on all that potential which was too often disrupted by injuries or suspensions under previous managers.

When Sunderland’s legs began to look heavy in the second half and their passing grew more ragged, Cattermole became stronger.

United’s attempts to finally create some fluency (or even muster anything resembling a chance) were regularly thwarted by a timely interception from Cattermole.

In that controlled role in front of the back four, he is thriving.

England boss Roy Hodgson could do far, far worse for next month’s internationals.

Whether he will look this far north is another question altogether.

What was missing for Sunderland during that second half was a greater attacking threat, albeit United’s pressing and organisation improved after the break.

After Wickham’s volley was deflected inches wide of his own post by Tyler Blackett just after the restart, Sunderland barely mustered an opportunity, albeit neither did United.

Considering the gaps which had appeared in United’s back-line during the first half and the inexperience of the personnel in their defence, there had to be some sense of missing a trick after Rodwell’s equaliser.

Wickham made a decent contribution from a left-sided inside forward role – holding the ball up effectively and picking out the overlapping runs of van Aanholt.

But the England Under-21 frontman needs to be down the middle to bring the very best out of him.

Steven Fletcher worked tirelessly in that central role, but, other than a wayward overhead kick, he never really looked like scoring. The Scot desperately needs a goal to get his Sunderland career back up and running.

It wasn’t until the introduction of Jozy Altidore, with 15 minutes to go, that United’s defence was put on the back foot again.

Altidore lifted the crowd with his powerful, direct running; fulfilling Poyet’s hopes of the American initially offering an impact off the bench in the early stages of the season as he finds his fitness.

Handing Altidore a start in Wednesday’s Capital One Cup second round clash at Birmingham to further boost his sharpness is not the worst plan Poyet could consider.

Sunderland go to St Andrew’s still looking for a first win of the season.

But ruing the potential loss of two points against a United side – who admittedly hold none of the fear factor of old – is no bad thing.

In two games, Sunderland have doubled the tally they managed from the opening eight encounters of last season.

More encouragingly though, Sunderland are a long way from the soft touch which was so blatantly apparent 12 months ago.

If the final pieces of the jigsaw who arrive over the next week are half-decent too, then Sunderland’s overhaul will have the club heading in the right direction.

SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Vergini, O’Shea, Brown, van Aanholt, Cattermole, Rodwell (Gomez 64), Larsson, Buckley (Bridcutt 79), Wickham, Fletcher (Altidore 76). Subs not used: Pantilimon, Jones, Mavrias, Roberge.

MANCHESTER UNITED: De Gea, Jones, Smalling (Keane 43), Blackett, Valencia, Young, Cleverley, Fletcher (Januzaj 63), Mata, Rooney, van Persie (Welbeck 63). Subs not used: Amos, Hernandez, Kagawa, James. Booked: Young (62), Cleverley (67)

Attendance: 43,217