Chris Young: Why the counter-attack has become Sunderland’s chief ploy in the drop battle

Duncan Watmore. Picture by FRANK REID
Duncan Watmore. Picture by FRANK REID
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Sam Allardyce pledged to keep his game-plan as simple as possible at Carrow Road to ease the anxiety surrounding a fixture which was so decisive in Sunderland’s survival hopes.

He made good on that promise.

There was nothing flashy about Sunderland’s strategy against their relegation rivals. It was a case of soaking up pressure, knocking balls over the top for Jermain Defoe or Fabio Borini to chase onto, and looking to prey on a suspect Norwich defence on the counter-attack.

It was not too dissimilar to the set-up against Leicester six days earlier, albeit the Foxes have far less fragility in their back-line.

Sunderland were undone against the league leaders due to one lapse of defensive concentration, and one howling miss at the other end. While the Black Cats were poor in possession, they wasn’t a lot wrong with their strategy for an hour.

Allardyce will surely line up in a similar fashion against Arsenal on Sunday – allowing the Gunners to monopolise possession and then breaking forward in numbers.

It’s a tried and tested method which Arsene Wenger’s side face on a regular basis, and one which almost brought Sunderland rewards during their two games at the Emirates earlier in the season.

Had Sunderland boasted an ounce more precision with their finishing, then they would have come away with draws in the Premier League and FA Cup, rather than a pair of 3-1 defeats.

Allardyce’s men repeatedly caused Arsenal problems on the counter-attack in both encounters, particularly Duncan Watmore, who must be in the Sunderland manager’s thinking for Sunday.

Arsenal do have a tendency to leave space for attackers to roam into on the break and that plays perfectly to Watmore’s strengths.

Watmore’s best first-team performances have generally come as a substitute, while Wahbi Khazri perhaps deserves the benefit of the doubt from one poor 45-minute showing, even if he has looked a little leggy over recent weeks.

There would be no surprise if Allardyce named an unchanged line-up for the fourth successive game – a staggering run by Sunderland’s standards of tinkering over the last two years.

But Watmore is an option from the bench who could genuinely prove to be a game-changer.

Even if Newcastle win at Anfield tomorrow and put the heat on Sunderland, the Black Cats have to keep their focus and remain patient against the Gunners, rather than go for broke and get picked off by Wenger’s intelligent performers.

This is another game where the counter-attack can pay off in Sunderland’s survival quest.