Chris Young big-match analysis: Sunderland’s signs of the times ahead

IN-FORM ... Jozy Altidore, left, in action against Southampton.
IN-FORM ... Jozy Altidore, left, in action against Southampton.
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ACRUCIAL goal to secure a place in the League Cup quarter-finals is only the beginning of the road to redemption for Phil Bardsley.

The ill-conceived casino pictures and Instagram comment alienated supporters so thoroughly that it will take time for those wounds to heal.

But Sunderland’s longest-serving first-teamer is heading in the right direction.

After an unfortunate own goal on a rusty return at Swansea last month, Bardsley has kept his head down, put in the graft on the training ground, produced a couple of dogged displays and was rewarded last night with a crucial – if scrappy – strike.

Had Sunderland’s predicament in the relegation dogfight not been so dire, the prospect of a Capital One Cup quarter-final at home to Chelsea would be received with real relish.

But the possibility of dropping into the Championship will understandably divert attention away from following Swansea’s lead to Wembley, silverware and Europe.

Sunderland have an opportunity though, with a home draw against a Chelsea side who will inevitably be subjected to rotation.

More pressingly, last night’s comfortable win will have injected some much-needed confidence into the Black Cats after the most complete display of Poyet’s reign – the attribute he made a point of asking for before kick-off.

Bardsley’s recall has been the major change in personnel under Poyet, albeit the Uruguayan shuffled his pack last night with seven changes to the side which lost at Hull.

But this was the first real sign of a different style for Sunderland.

In terms of formation, it was a return to the 4-5-1 which worked so well for Sunderland during the opening half of Kevin Ball’s final game in charge against Manchester United.

Yet it was the change of philosophy which was so noticeable.

Poyet’s Brighton were heavily based around possession and patient build-up play and, after three games where the head coach had experimented with systems, personnel and tactics, this was a glimpse into the future.

Sunderland played the ball calmly along the back-line and were not afraid to go backwards when they ran down blind alleys.

Ki Sung-Yeung was deployed in the “quarterback” role as the link between defence and midfield just in front of the back four, and demonstrated the composure on the ball which was so badly missing at Hull on Saturday.

Both the South Korean and the impressive Jack Colback were also urged to sweep low and hard passes to the flanks for the onrushing full-backs, rather than attempting high crossfield Hollywood balls.

There were grumbles from the terraces as Sunderland concentrated on possession, rather than instantly looking for the killer ball to cut the Saints wide open.

But supporters will have to get used to it.

This is how Poyet will attempt to overhaul Sunderland in the long-term.

That Peter Reid-esque approach of getting the ball wide quickly and banging in crosses is a thing of the past.

In the first half, it didn’t make for a great spectacle ... to put it mildly.

With the smallest attendance of Sunderland’s three Capital One Cup ties this season, there was a low-key atmosphere and a low-key feel about the entire game.

It was more pre-season than cut-throat cup football.

But Poyet would have been content at the interval. For the first time under his stewardship, he had seen his side show some love to the ball and exert an element of control over proceedings.

The chances then started to arrive after the break.

The benefits of playing a five-man midfield were seen with Craig Gardner given the licence to attack the edge of the area and Adam Johnson gaining possession higher up the pitch, rather than constantly tracking back and forth.

Johnson produced one horribly wayward cross straight into touch after a positive surge down the line, but he looked lively and, more importantly, hungry following his relegation to the bench at Hull.

Jozy Altidore began to operate like a bull, with a touch of craft to accompany the muscle, after a beautiful back-heel into the path of Gardner, who was denied by a smart save from Kelvin Davis.

It was very much the type of performance which persuaded Sunderland to shell out more than £6million in the summer.

Even if Steven Fletcher may replace Altidore on Sunday, Sunderland will surely persist with the same formation and style against Manchester City and they should take heart that, at home at least this season, their performances have been decent.

Admittedly, they will face an infinitely more threatening attack at the weekend.

Quite why Southampton boss Mauricio Pochettino opted to rest all of his big-hitters was baffling, given the Saints have no worries over relegation, knew they faced a home tie in the next round and were tackling a wounded Sunderland.

Against such modest attacking threat, it was the perfect opportunity for Wes Brown to make his first competitive start since January 2012, even though the former Manchester United man showed the glimpses of what an invaluable player he can be if – and it’s a big if – he can stay injury-free.

But Southampton’s failure to pose sufficient questions will not worry Poyet.

He has now overseen back-to-back home wins, is seeing evidence of his training ground graft paying dividends and has a cup quarter-final place awaiting.

If he can accompany that with another notch – or even three – to the points tally on Sunday, then it won’t have been such a bad reaction to the KC Stadium fiasco.

Twitter @youngsunecho