Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Di Canio proving master tactician for Sunderland

BORN AGAIN: Man of the match Alfred N'Diaye battles Everton midfielder Leon Osman.
BORN AGAIN: Man of the match Alfred N'Diaye battles Everton midfielder Leon Osman.
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SUNDERLAND’S three right-back options spent Friday night enjoying a front-row vantage point of the Rainton Meadows Arena boxing.

How Paolo Di Canio would have liked to call upon just one of them at the team’s pre-match hotel.

Without the injured Wes Brown and Phil Bardsley, along with the suspended Craig Gardner, Di Canio faced a critical dilemma in harnessing one of the most coherent wide partnerships in the Premier League.

Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar have that Micky Gray/Allan Johnston telepathy down Everton’s left and held the ominous potential to be Sunderland’s chief tormentors and maintain that hoodoo against the Toffees.

What was Di Canio to do?

It would have been self-defeating to break up the central defensive partnership of Carlos Cuellar and John O’Shea by moving one of them to right-back after the duo thrived at St James’s Park (and did so again on Saturday).

And in truth, neither of the two 31-year-olds can any longer genuinely boast that they have the legs to be as effective at right-back, as at centre-half.

Di Canio’s choice was down to two.

Did he use Seb Larsson as a makeshift defender, whose experiences at right-back have largely been limited to a handful of appearances there for Sweden, other than in an emergency five or 10-minute spell for Sunderland?

Or did Sunderland’s head coach again turn to Jack Colback, whose entire experience of playing in the position amounted to just over 40 minutes at St James’s Park?

The prospect of continuity in central midfield and central defence was perhaps the decisive factor in Di Canio’s decision to turn to Colback, yet it turned into a masterstroke.

Time will tell whether Di Canio does indeed have the Midas touch, or he is simply enjoying the breaks which seem to accompany a new face in the dug-out – as was the case during Martin O’Neill’s first four months in charge.

But Colback epitomised the make do and mend mentality which has pervaded around Sunderland’s desperately depleted squad over the last three weeks.

Colback’s experiences at left-back undoubtedly helped him to cope. After all, the likes of Bardsley and Chris Makin have proved that it is possible to succeed at full-back on the opposite side to their natural foot.

But there was a steely determination around the 23-year-old on his first start under Di Canio, that neither Pienaar nor Baines were going to get any joy out of him.

Colback’s confidence was boosted when he calmly held off Pienaar’s attempts to burst beyond him in the opening 10 minutes and shielded the ball back to Simon Mignolet.

And that proved to be indicative of what was to come from the Tynesider.

Colback stuck tight to either Pienaar or Baines, not allowing them room to skip away into space or deliver an easy cross, while Adam Johnson must take credit too for his part in helping the Sunderland academy product.

Di Canio had clearly drilled his players on the training ground about the threat from the Toffees and there was scant opportunity for Baines to get to the by-line.

The England full-back was either forced to deliver the ball from deep, or Pienaar had to check inside and deliver an inswinging cross which was comfortably dealt with by the immaculate Cuellar and O’Shea.

It was only from corners that Baines’s delivery was a threat and Everton increasingly resorted to the direct approach after discovering Sunderland’s stubborn resistance.

Such was Everton’s lack of incision after the break, that Moyes even broke up the left-sided partnership by switching Kevin Mirallas – who had been equally nullified by the impressive Danny Rose – and Pienaar.

That had little effect either, as Sunderland’s desire and determination to throw bodies on the line and battle for every loose ball ensured they recorded back-to-back clean sheets for the first time since December.

On only one occasion, just before the hour mark, was Colback’s unfamiliarity with his surroundings exposed when he played Nikica Jelavic onside to John Heitinga’s over-hit long ball over the top.

Crucially, Colback’s readiness to slot in at right-back allowed Sunderland’s central midfield partnership to remain intact.

A fortnight ago, the prospect of Larsson and Alfred N’Diaye being separated would barely have caused a ripple of anxiety on the terraces.

But after the duo’s display against Newcastle and again on Saturday, they have arguably been the chief beneficiaries of Di Canio’s remarkable renovation of this team.

Larsson was not faultless; the chronically over-hit back pass towards Simon Mignolet could have been one of the most suicidal moments of the season, while he twice over-cooked relatively simple through-balls during the first half.

But the ex-Birmingham man seems to have rediscovered his drive over the last two games and his display was characterised by bursts forwards and confident, raking passes to the flanks.

N’Diaye was even more instrumental.

When O’Neill broke his silence over his Sunderland exit a fortnight ago, he stressed how January signings N’Diaye and Danny Graham would prove to be fruitful buys after they emerged from the bedding-in period.

It’s proving to be true.

N’Diaye enjoyed his best game in a Sunderland shirt and crucially nullified Everton’s talisman, Marouane Fellaini, by physically going toe-to-toe with the 6ft 4in Belgian.

That’s what N’Diaye was bought for and that is what Di Canio has concentrated on – winning the ball and playing it simple, not trying to hit crossfield passes which tended to head straight into touch during his opening few games in red and white.

N’Diaye’s readiness to put a foot in spread throughout the team, and the terraces too, as the crowd roared Sunderland on to the finishing line, in a manner reminiscent of the Stadium of Light’s formative years in the late 90s.

Di Canio reveled in that atmosphere before exploding with a succession of punches into the Wearside air. It was a second successive watching brief of pugilistic skills for Sunderland’s right-back options.

But the Italian has instantly proved that no obstacle is insurmountable in his transformation of the Black Cats.

Twitter @youngsunecho