Chris Young Analysis - Lee Cattermole is now Sunderland’s talisman

Lee Cattermole in action for Sunderland at The Stadium of Light against Chelsea. Picture by FRANK REID
Lee Cattermole in action for Sunderland at The Stadium of Light against Chelsea. Picture by FRANK REID
9
Have your say

BY HIS own admission, Ellis Short has dropped a clanger or two during his Sunderland stewardship.

But as he applauded Sunderland off at a particularly raucous Stadium of Light on Saturday night, Short could afford to reflect fondly on a pivotal call which has proved to be one of his best decisions in the Black Cats hotseat.

Almost a year ago, Short told Gus Poyet that if he didn’t want to sell Lee Cattermole, then he didn’t need to.

After bringing Liam Bridcutt to the Stadium of Light only hours earlier, Poyet was genuinely in two minds over whether to accept Stoke’s offer on the afternoon of January deadline day.

The telephone conversation with Short persuaded him to keep hold of the Teessider.

Just think of the potential consequences if Cattermole had been sold.

Certainly, you have to question whether Sunderland would have survived in the Premier League last season without Cattermole’s sheer will to win.

Even if they had done, Poyet would now be operating without a player who has emerged as Sunderland’s talisman.

Much has been written about Cattermole maturing and blossoming over recent months, but there should be no apologies for the continued praise of the North East Football Writers’ Player of the Year.

Extending a contract which has just over 18 months to run should be one of Lee Congerton’s priorities in the New Year.

Cattermole was again colossal – although he wasn’t alone – in helping Sunderland become the first side this season to prevent the Premier League leaders from finding the net.

Time and again Cattermole put his body on the line in blocking shots on the edge of the area.

He nicked possession away, tackled cleanly, drove forward with the ball and patrolled the midfield so effectively that this previously unstoppable Chelsea juggernaut simply ran out of ideas and resorted to pot-shots from distance.

For all Jose Mourinho’s side may have monopolised the ball for long periods, they had one clear-cut opportunity. One.

Performing in that manner during a televised game will only add to the bandwagon of those calling for Roy Hodgson to look beyond the lazy perceptions of Cattermole and actually give genuine consideration to including him in the England squad.

Hodgson has been willing to call up the likes of Jonjo Shelvey and Jack Colback since the World Cup, and let’s not forget that he continued to pick Tom Cleverley without a hint of form last season.

After just one visit to the Stadium of Light in two-and-a-half years though, there will understandably be scepticism over whether Hodgson will ever be open-minded enough to consider Cattermole.

While Cattermole may have been the player singled out as epitomising Sunderland’s doggedness on Saturday, then midfield partner Seb Larsson wasn’t far behind.

Like Cattermole, Larsson hasn’t always been flavour of the month on the terraces. He was one of the scapegoats for Sunderland’s plight last season, albeit he concedes that some of his performances were well below par.

But since his contribution to the Great Escape – which persuaded Sunderland to offer him a new contract – Larsson seems to have learned how to channel his workaholic disposition far more effectively.

In tandem with Cattermole, Larsson ceaselessly patrolled the edge of the box; preventing the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Oscar and Eden Hazard playing those slick one-twos which have had devastating consequences this season.

Perhaps the upturn in Larsson’s form has simply stemmed from a better understanding of his surroundings.

Don’t forget that the Swede was never a central midfielder by trade until the last couple of seasons.

He was shoehorned there and understandably suffered because of it.

But in Poyet’s midfield three, Larsson has grasped his role and now has a far better understanding of his surroundings; no doubt helped by the regular presence of Cattermole, John O’Shea and Wes Brown in close proximity.

That was the central theme throughout Sunderland’s ranks on Saturday - everyone knew their jobs down to the finest details of the smallprint.

Those Sky Sports graphics of Sunderland’s defensive shape for once told a significant story.

The back six looked like they had been drilled off a military parade ground.

Now, considering the quantity of games which 30-somethings O’Shea, Brown and Anthony Reveillere have participated in during their decorated careers, they should know a thing or two about defending.

But subduing a Chelsea attack that has found the net in every game since May, and can boast pace, power and passing precision, was a wonderful achievement from Poyet’s side.

Just think back to how Eden Hazard ripped Sunderland to pieces last December. Santiago Vergini - so unfortunate not to open his Black Cats account - barely gave him a sniff.

What was particularly pleasing though was that this wasn’t simply a backs-to-the-wall job from Sunderland.

The hosts stockpiled men behind the ball during the opening 20 minutes, but they grew and grew in confidence as proceedings wore on.

Jose Mourinho may have moaned afterwards that “only one team wanted to win” but Sunderland arguably created more than Chelsea. Certainly, they seemed the more likely winners during the final 20 minutes.

Connor Wickham was at the heart of Sunderland’s offensive threat; physically intimidating Branislav Ivanovic – not a regular sight – and crucially offering the Black Cats an outlet to relieve the defensive pressure by regularly charging down the left.

Over the last three games, there has been an indication that Wickham is beginning to embrace his role on the left side of the forward line.

Obviously, he would prefer to be down the middle, but his body language now looks as if he is trying to make the most of regular first-team football out wide, rather than killing time there as a temporary measure.

Given Sunderland’s goal struggles, that’s a big plus. Jozy Altidore deserves some praise too for unsettling the Chelsea defence during the finale.

While Steven Fletcher had been handled well by John Terry, Altidore’s unpredictability and pace ruffled Chelsea’s composure and the American was unfortunate that his persistence didn’t pay off when Thibault Courtois blocked his off-balance shot.

Adam Johnson was also left ruing his failure to profit from late chances, yet Sunderland can’t begrudge a point against a Chelsea side who looked relatively ordinary for one of the few occasions this season.

Yes, in the big picture, Sunderland could do with an extra splash of attacking potency – an eighth draw of the season and a second successive goalless draw is testament to that.

But this game was almost a free hit where anything was a bonus.

Far from giving it up, Sunderland’s sheer determination ensured that the points tally continues to tick over.

SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Vergini, O’Shea, Brown, Reveillere, Cattermole, Larsson, Rodwell (Gomez 62), Johnson, Wickham, Fletcher (Altidore 62). Subs not used: Mannone, Bridcutt, Alvarez, Coates, Buckley. Booked: O’Shea (75), Vergini (89), Gomez (90)

CHELSEA: Courtois, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Azpilicueta, Matic, Fabregas, Willian (Schurrle 85), Oscar (Drogba 76), Hazard, Costa (Remy 76). Subs not used: Cech, Zouma, Filipe Luis, Mikel, Schurrle. Booked: Costa (55), Matic (86)

Attendance: 45,232