Chris Young: Sunderland can thrive despite loss of key players like Lee Cattermole

Duncan Watmore
Duncan Watmore
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Lee Cattermole was understandably irritated when a sciatic back problem sustained in training on Friday ruled him out of the trip to Arsenal.

Cattermole had visited a London specialist during the last international break and the hope was that the subsequent treatment had solved an issue which has plagued the Teessider throughout the campaign.

Cattermole has been Sunderland’s talisman for so long that his absence always feels a notable one

But with Cattermole joining Seb Larsson on the treatment table for the trip to Arsenal, the team sheet was... well, in truth it was slightly ominous without that solid midfield barrier which had thwarted Stoke and Crystal Palace so effectively in the previous two matches.

Cattermole has been Sunderland’s talisman for so long that his absence always feels a notable one, albeit, alongside him, Yann M’Vila has been the classiest of acts this season.

Sunderland weren’t brittle at Arsenal though.

They remained as resilient as in the previous two encounters, while creating far more frequent opportunities at the other end, even if the failure to profit left them empty-handed.

Despite falling back into the relegation zone thanks to Bournemouth’s win over Chelsea (suddenly that trip to Stamford Bridge in a fortnight doesn’t look quite so ominous) that’s a genuinely encouraging sign for Sam Allardyce.

Players are hungry to profit from the misfortune of others and make their mark.

Likewise, those already in the starting XI are not subconsciously raising the white flag just because a key player or two are missing.

Yes, they lost, but Sunderland are beginning to harness some mental strength.

They haven’t boasted any of that consistently since Martin O’Neill’s first six months at the helm in the 2011-12 season.

It’s certainly a significant transformation from the defeat against Southampton just a month ago when Allardyce said his charges were “playing with fear”.

That dread among supporters that Sunderland are only ever a game away from another collapse is slowly beginning to ebb away.

Ola Toivonen was a case in point.

The Swede showed glimpses during Dick Advocaat’s reign at the start of the season, yet he was awful in his first start under Allardyce in the Wear-Tyne derby, before a recurrence of his groin problem proved to be a blessing in disguise.

The on-loan Rennes man was no better in the defeat against the Saints in his next opportunity. He was arguably even worse.

But rather than being a liability at the Emirates, Toivonen was excellent, before fatigue, owing to his lack of recent game-time, prompted his removal on the hour mark.

Toivonen kept the ball moving intelligently and accurately to the two flying widemen, while he also wasn’t afraid to put a foot in alongside M’Vila, who was the best central midfielder on the pitch. It would be no surprise whatsoever if Arsene Wenger revived his interest in his fellow Frenchman this summer.

He is, without doubt, that good.

Like Toivonen, Duncan Watmore made the most of the opportunity stemming from the absence of others with a performance which will have prompted even more admirers of the 21-year-old.

On his first Premier League start a month ago, Watmore was shackled after a bright opening 10 minutes, yet he is acclimatising to the top flight at a lightning rate.

He’s beginning to make that transition from impact substitute to genuine contender for a starting spot.

From the moment Watmore sent Fabio Borini clean through on goal inside the opening four minutes, Arsenal’s defence struggled to contain him – Laurent Koscielny even resorting to a crude tackle to slow him down, which earned the French centre-half a booking.

Watmore should have made more of M’Vila’s wonderfully nonchalant ball in behind the Arsenal defence, but getting into those positions in the first place is part of the art itself.

The only player introduced to the side who didn’t shine was Borini, with the Italian proving to be Sunderland’s weak link – spurning his early chance and then almost gifting an equaliser seconds after Olivier Giroud’s own goal levelled matters for Sunderland, cancelling out Joel Campbell’s opener.

Perhaps Borini is rusty from his lack of recent action, yet he needs to start producing better.

He’s not a young loanee any more. He’s a player Sunderland have splashed out £10million – plus big wages – to sign.

Borini aside though, Sunderland collectively played like a proper team, with a proper attitude and a proper organisation.

Although he spurned THE glorious late opportunity to grab an equaliser, Patrick van Aanholt, for example, has suddenly become defensively reliable and offensively threatening.

Performances alone won’t be sufficient for Sunderland to survive.

Steve McClaren bleated on about how well Newcastle had performed against Sunderland and Stoke, yet the Magpies only got a solitary point in their survival bid.

In the stricken position Sunderland are in, the Black Cats have to keep their tally ticking over and this coming Saturday’s visit of in-form Watford has to be regarded as the pivotal encounter before the New Year.

But in north London, in a game which was largely a ‘free hit’ after the wins against Stoke and Palace, Sunderland could have, should have, knocked it out the park.

That has to provide some encouragement about the momentum behind Sunderland’s revival.