Sunderland 1 Wigan 0 – Big match verdict

Seb Larsson
Seb Larsson
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EVEN the uninitiated could conclude that a first Premier League victory since March revolved around the 47th-minute dismissal of Jordi Gomez.

But this was a tale of two red cards, not one.

For while the Spaniard’s lunge on Danny Rose swung the pendulum firmly in Sunderland’s favour, Lee Cattermole’s red mist at MK Dons similarly affected what was an unconvincing display from Martin O’Neill’s men, albeit the result far outweighed any merits for style.

It was an instant reminder of the true cost of Cattermole’s actions in the Capital One Cup and the ramifications on Sunderland while the skipper sits helpless in the stands.

Without the Teessider’s drive and organisational abilities in the middle of the park, Sunderland were second best in the engine room while the sides had numerical parity and little more convincing when they didn’t.

In part, that was due to Wigan’s formation.

Roberto Martinez’s 3-4-3 system allowed James McArthur and James McCarthy to sit and provide the muscle in midfield, while deep-lying forwards Shaun Maloney and Gomez dropped back to support them when Sunderland were in possession.

It left the middle of the park swamped and Sunderland couldn’t find the necessary space to supplement what has hitherto been a one-man attack this season.

Stephane Sessegnon, finally beginning to resemble the live-wire who plagued top-flight defences last season, looked a threat in the free role, yet he was persistently hounded by a pack of Wigan midfielders.

It was a similar story for Adam Johnson and James McClean.

Johnson, albeit he didn’t look anywhere near match-fit, had precious few opportunities to run at Maynor Figueroa, while McClean looked almost panicked by the need to deliver quality on his few chances to create.

McClean’s dreadful cross straight into the stands and a simple lay-off to Sessegnon which rolled into touch would have had Martinez salivating at Wigan’s scrambling qualities.

But as much as Wigan frustrated Sunderland with their well-drilled system, the Black Cats’ midfield foundations were equally responsible for a lacklustre first-half display from the hosts.

Jack Colback and Seb Larsson had enjoyed just an hour together as a central pair – the 2-2 draw at Swansea after Cattermole limped off with a dead leg.

Their unfamiliarity showed. The duo clearly need to develop an understanding of who sits and who goes if they are to remain as a double act during Cattermole’s suspension.

Sunderland were never able to muster any sense of control over proceedings from that midfield area, which translated into a scarcity of opportunities – both of the Wearsiders’ best first-half efforts tellingly stemming from set pieces.

But while Cattermole was sorely missed, that sending off didn’t ultimately decide the result.

Martinez may have had a point afterwards that Larsson mimicked Gomez’s lunge in stoppage time when he dived in on the impressive Arouna Kone.

Had Larsson’s outstretched right boot crashed into Kone’s shins, rather than nutmegging the bleach-blonde frontman, then surely the pernickety Howard Webb would have handed the Swede his marching orders.

But that didn’t excuse Gomez’s studs-up tackle on Rose.

The on-loan Spurs left-back admitted afterwards that he didn’t know “whether the guy was a bit unlucky to be sent off”.

However, while there wasn’t the same force behind the former Espanyol midfielder’s challenge as Cattermole’s tackle on Adam Chicksen, Gomez still launched himself into the 50-50 ball.

This long-jump technique of tackling seems to have germinated over the last year or two and the FA is rightly looking to clamp down on it with limbs at risk of fracture.

Consistency continues to elude officials – as David Luiz can fortuitously testify after his lunge on Stoke’s Jonathan Walters nine days ago – but any player producing such a challenge in this environment is naively risking retribution.

Admittedly, Gomez’s dismissal seemed even more decisive as a turning point after Steven Fletcher compounded Wigan’s misery moments later with the most nonchalant of finishes for his fifth goal in red and white.

Yet from the moment Gomez marched sullenly down the tunnel, to well past the hour mark, the numerical difference utterly changed the pattern of the play.

Without having that extra body to clog the midfield, Wigan were stretched – even more so after Maloney was replaced by Franco Di Santo, as Martinez placed his chips on a front two creating something out of nothing on the break.

Suddenly, Sunderland were able to find space, string some passes together and involve their widemen.

McClean came to life, firing a superb ball across the face, just out of the range of Sessegnon.

But the clear-cut chance for a killer second never arrived.

More alarmingly, Sunderland’s control over midfield began to slip, too, as they descended into cheap giveaways and cheap fouls.

It wasn’t until the introduction of David Vaughan with 10 minutes to go that Sunderland looked comfortable and were able to manipulate possession both more calmly and incisively.

That provides food for thought for Sunderland’s trip to the Etihad this Saturday, particularly as Cattermole played such a crucial role in earning the Black Cats four points against the champions last season.

On both occasions against Manchester City, Cattermole was able to perform the not-inconsiderable task of marshalling Yaya Toure – going toe-to-toe and often elbow-to-elbow with the Ivorian behemoth.

O’Neill now faces five days to decide who can fill that gulf.

Does he opt for David Meyler – the only option who can begin to match up physically to Toure – the tireless work-rate of Larsson or the poise and precision of the admittedly slighter Vaughan?

Against Wigan, that central midfield quandry didn’t prove costly, as Gomez’s dismissal, coupled with Fletcher’s purple patch, proved sufficient.

Essentially, that was all Saturday was about. The result and a reminder of the winning feeling overrode any considerations of performance.

But this weekend will be different.

Solid, yet mediocre going forward, will not be enough for the Black Cats.

For the first time, arguably since the opening day, O’Neill’s men need to produce a performance.