ON BOTH occasions when Sunderland have ventured into the ever-ominous territory of cup banana skins this season, orthodox frontmen have been noticeably absent.
In August’s Carling Cup second round elimination at Championship outfit Brighton, Stephane Sessegnon was asked to lead the line, with Craig Gardner patrolling in the pocket behind him, and the duo were again chosen to spearhead Sunderland’s attack in the absence of knee injury victim Nicklas Bendtner yesterday.
Results inevitably sway public opinion and what looked an unnecessarily negative team selection from Steve Bruce now appears as a solid, if unspectacular, line-up from Martin O’Neill after Sunderland coasted past a decidedly mediocre Peterborough outfit in the FA Cup third round.
O’Neill is still in the honeymoon period and can do no wrong, while Bruce was nearing the end and even a Black Cats victory at the Amex Stadium may have sparked criticism of the Tynesider for not blooding Ji Dong-won or Connor Wickham.
But both managers had their reasons for selecting Sessegnon as the pinnacle of Sunderland’s attack.
Bruce had seen the Benin international thrive in that role during the penultimate away game of last season at Bolton, while Asamoah Gyan’s indifferent form forced the ex-Sunderland boss to burst the Ghanaian’s bubble by restricting him to a brief cameo in extra-time.
Shorn of the presence of Bendtner and with Wickham still in the tender stages of recovery, O’Neill turned to Sessegnon in the hope of stifling what had been an in-form Peterborough by flooding the midfield with Gardner’s presence alongside David Vaughan and Lee Cattermole.
But it wasn’t just the outcome nor the respective stock of the two managers which were the difference between Sunderland’s two cup displays, it was the way in which O’Neill dragged the most out of the 4-5-1 system yesterday.
Admittedly, confidence is a factor and Sunderland headed into the televised encounter blessed by the flush of back-to-back wins for the first time in a year, whereas the Carling Cup tie came on the back of derby disaster.
But Sunderland had a thorough understanding of what was required to advance with the minimum of fuss at London Road and executed the game plan with barely a flicker of difficulty.
The Posh let themselves down badly in what had promised to be a blood and thunder cup tie – barely rampaging into a single challenge and never testing Simon Mignolet, with playmaker George Boyd almost casual as an attacking presence.
By contrast, Brighton persistently worried Sunderland’s back-line, with Craig Mackail-Smith looking to prosper in behind and Craig Noone’s searing pace earning him joy down the left against Ahmed Elmohamady.
There was to be none of that yesterday. Sunderland set out their stall to quash the life out of the hosts and succeeded – happily soaking up pressure and looking to make the most of their moments on the counter-attack.
Lee Cattermole mopped up any remotely threatening situations, while the John O’Shea and Matt Kilgallon double act continues to make light of Sunderland’s central defensive woes.
But, attacking wise, Sunderland scored two goals while playing within themselves when they struggled to even hit the target on the south coast back in August.
O’Neill has a weapon Bruce didn’t, or at least didn’t choose to unleash, in James McClean, with the ex-Derry City winger tormenting the club he almost joined in the summer.
But the Sunderland boss has also begun to bring the best out of Gardner, switched from the emergency confines of right-back to a more orthodox attacking midfield role.
Earlier in the season, Gardner was too desperate to impress – making his runs too early, rather than attacking the penalty area late and pouncing while everyone else was ball-watching.
But yesterday, albeit with a helping hand from Peterborough regularly ceding possession in their own half, Gardner relished the room allocated to him in the hole.
Gardner should have got on the scoresheet – unleashing a decent effort from distance early on which was parried by Joe Lewis and then failing to get enough behind a header to Seb Larsson’s right-wing cross from an inviting position 12 yards out.
But the ex-Birmingham midfielder linked the play effectively, spreading possession as often as possible to the threat of goalscorers McClean and Larsson on the flanks.
It meant Sessegnon, who Sunderland were relying upon to convert water into wine back in August, could provide a workmanlike contribution, albeit one which made nothing like the most of his talent.
Sessegnon’s prowess stems from scaring defenders by running from deep, whereas yesterday he was marginalised to flicks and lay-offs.
But the intriguing aspect of a system which Bruce abandoned after one game following the Brighton flop, is whether O’Neill persists with Sessegnon as a lone striker while Bendtner recuperates.
At Aston Villa, O’Neill proved successful with Gabby Agbonlahor as his frontman, making the most of his devastating pace on the counter, with a similarly fleet-footed supporting cast.
While Sessegnon is not too far behind the lightning-quick Agbonlahor in the speed stakes, he struggles with the predatory aspect of the game – testified by his sluggish reaction to the rebound when Lewis parried away Gardner’s early long-distance effort.
But with Sunderland heading to Chelsea on Saturday, perhaps being difficult to break down cannot be sniffed at. O’Neill proved yesterday that a Sessegnon-spearheaded 4-5-1 is perhaps not quite the hapless system Bruce presided over.