Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Flair trade gives Cats a buzz

James McClean celebrating his second goal Sunderland AFC v Morecambe FC 2nd round League Cup.
James McClean celebrating his second goal Sunderland AFC v Morecambe FC 2nd round League Cup.
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SUNDERLAND were a one-dimensional force when they capped derby misery with League Cup elimination this time last year.

Such was Sunderland’s reliance on Stephane Sessegnon for creativity in the formative stages of the campaign, that the Black Cats were a predictable attacking force.

Opposition sides quickly stumbled on an obvious equation – stop Sessegnon and you stop Sunderland.

Steve Bruce’s inability to identify an alternative left-winger, after Aston Villa were the only club prepared to meet the wage demands of surly Frenchman Charles N’Zogbia, left Sunderland lopsided – blessed by industry, yet lacking sparkle.

It was one of the principle reasons why Martin O’Neill was so keen to integrate James McClean into the first-team fold on his arrival last December.

Suddenly, there was width to Sunderland’s midfield and an extra prong to the attack duly handed Sessegnon far more licence to find space.

But when McClean became a fixture on opposition scouting reports and earned double attention down Sunderland’s left, there was still that element missing from the opposite flank.

For all Sunderland lacked a striker during their measly return of three goals from the last seven games of last season, there was also a clear need for a greater creative element, particularly when Sessegnon faded over the finale.

Seb Larsson, who actually looked far more of an attacking threat in a central midfield role last night, is full of industry and can deliver a pinpoint cross from the right.

But O’Neill has always favoured two widemen capable of leaving full-backs in knots.

It worked to great effect at Aston Villa when Ashley Young and James Milner were transformed from Premier League also-rans into England regulars.

And now that O’Neill has added Johnson to his armoury, Sunderland can boast a pair of natural widemen not seen since the days of Johnston and Summerbee.

Throw Sessegnon into the mix and Sunderland’s attack is now a salivating three-dimensional proposition – the potential of which was highlighted in a comfortable League Cup victory.

While some of Sunderland’s slick approach play against admittedly humble opposition did not result in the chances it should have done, there was still much promise around the trio supporting targetman Steven Fletcher.

As one Morecambe player quipped afterwards: “It was like chasing the Red Devils”.

Johnson was at the heart of proceedings.

From the moment he first touched the ball, there was a buzz around a half-full Stadium of Light. The local boy, who Sunderland have spent the best part of three years chasing, was back.

O’Neill continues to refer to Johnson as a “coup” and it’s difficult to dispute after hitting the ground running for the Black Cats in such imperious fashion.

Morecambe’s attempts to double up and even triple up on Johnson were to no avail. He shone.

Only Roberto Mancini knows why he opted to dispense with the Easington winger’s services for potential replacements Theo Walcott and Scott Sinclair, but the champions’ loss is Sunderland’s gain.

Johnson was equally eager to revel on his Black Cats bow and he showcased his full repertoire, slaloming down the touchline, juggling with almost arrogant ease and spreading the play with raking passes to McClean on the opposite flank.

The sight of the two wingers combining for both Sunderland goals will have had O’Neill purring and the manager is clearly keen for Johnson, McClean and Sessegnon to avoid being shackled by a rigid formation.

Although McClean predominantly found himself on his favoured left side and Johnson on the right where he spent the bulk of his time at City, it took just 10 minutes before the pair swapped flanks for the first time.

And the introduction of two natural wingers stretching the play on an extended Stadium of Light pitch, allowed Sessegnon more licence and freedom than he has ever enjoyed in his year-and-a-half in the Premier League.

Although the Benin international romped to the club’s Player of the Season title last year, this time around could be even more fruitful for the 28-year-old.

Sessegnon revelled in the free role behind Fletcher, dropping perilously deep into his own half to collect the ball and, on other occasions, getting the other side of the £12million frontman.

Morecambe understandably toiled to contain him and it will be intriguing to see whether Premier League midfields have any more joy with two eye-catching widemen also occupying their attention.

Of course, the creativity counts for nought if there is no-one to apply a final touch.

Fletcher will undoubtedly benefit from over an hour of competitive football after featuring just once for Wolves during pre-season.

The 25-year-old is clearly short on match fitness – testified by the glancing header he sent wide from McClean’s superb centre – and was unable to make the same sort of instant impression as Johnson.

But Fletcher will be licking his lips at the service available, as will those lying deeper, with Sunderland showing far more hunger to get bodies into the box.

Larsson, impressive makeshift left-back Jack Colback and Craig Gardner were all keen to get on the end of crosses which arrived at regular intervals from out wide.

That was partly due to the standard of the opposition and an absence of genuine fear of conceding on the counter-attack.

But Sunderland’s players have bought into the buzz surrounding the calibre of new arrivals at the Stadium of Light and clearly realise they can be a more expansive side with Johnson on the field.

A sterner test awaits at Swansea on Saturday, but Sunderland now boast that attacking swagger which was so sorely missing when they lurched to a stalemate at the Liberty Stadium last August.