Sunderland 2 Swansea 0: Chris Young’s verdict

Stephane Sessegnon
Stephane Sessegnon
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COMPARED to the seismic activity from the previous two transfer windows, Sunderland’s pulse has barely fluttered so far this month.

Martin O’Neill will hold further discussions with owner Ellis Short this week over any potential incomings, yet there have been precious few signs that the Sunderland boss feels any pressing need to bolster his squad before the summer.

Perhaps the injury to Nicklas Bendtner will alter that stance, but it is telling that speculation has largely centred on exits, such has been O’Neill’s preoccupation with dragging the extra yard out of those already at his disposal.

Kieran Richardson, Stephane Sessegnon and Craig Gardner have all been credited with a list of suitors, with the only concrete development an ambitious bid from Birmingham City to take the latter back to St Andrew’s on loan.

O’Neill is loathe to weaken his options, not least because he is still putting these players through their paces after less than two months in the job, and it would take a dramatic turn of events for Sunderland to permit any of their first-teamers to leave the Stadium of Light before 11pm on Tuesday week.

The summer may be a different story though, because Sunderland cannot kid themselves that Sessegnon’s emergence into one of the Premier League’s most elusive figures has gone unnoticed by clubs with more leeway in their cheque books.

Former manager Steve Bruce continually predicted, before a ball had been kicked, that Sessegnon would be key to Sunderland’s fortunes this season and by adding goals to his game, with a third in six Premier League encounters on Saturday, the Benin international is living up to the billing.

Sunderland would have struggled to vanquish the Barcelona of the Valleys if Sessegnon had not been in their ranks. He is that valuable a commodity.

The sumptuously nonchalant swipe which handed Sunderland the early advantage was crucial, allowing the hosts the luxury of sitting back and challenging Swansea to break them down.

But Sessegnon contributes far more than just goals, however magnificent they may be, by providing Sunderland an outlet to relieve the pressure – either on the road at one of the top flight’s heavyweights or against a side who care for the ball as magnificently as Swansea.

From an inauspicious start to his Sunderland career where he struggled to emerge from his shell or adapt to the tempo difference on the opposite side of the Channel, the 27-year-old has become the Wearsiders’ attacking talisman.

With strength, pace, a low centre of gravity and a touch of the unpredictable, Sessegnon is a devilishly difficult opponent to keep under wraps and he hands his own defenders a breather by ensuring the ball sticks whenever it goes forward.

Sessegnon provided the sprinkling of magic dust to a Sunderland performance which was hugely disciplined and admirably well-prepared, yet lacking the attacking intent visible from the previous two Premier League outings at Wigan and Chelsea.

Brendan Rodgers’ side are rightly being lauded for their philosophy and have matured since Sunderland’s August trip to the Liberty Stadium, into the Premier League’s finest proponents of possession football.

Fittingly for a side who boast a Dutch goalkeeper, Swansea genuinely practice a brand of Total Football. Stopper Michel Vorm hoofed clear just twice as he stuck doggedly to the principle of playing the ball out from the back, however precarious the situation.

But the meagre tally of eight in 11 on the road demonstrates the brutal truth that an overwhelming majority of possession doesn’t necessarily translate to the spoils needed for Premier League survival.

It was a statistic not lost on O’Neill, who ensured the resolute team shape mastered during his tenure remained intact to limit Swansea to the middle third of the field.

There were a few teething problems before Sunderland’s full-backs mastered the pace of Swansea’s widemen on the diagonal run inside – most noticeably when Gylfi Sigurdsson’s pass left Kieran Richardson stranded with Scott Sinclair failing to make the most of Nathan Dyer’s pull-back.

But other than Sigurdsson’s second-half free-kick, comfortably palmed away by Simon Mignolet, Swansea drastically lacked punch in the final third after the opening 25 minutes.

That man Sessegnon’s contribution from a defensive aspect cannot be overlooked though.

In the latter stages of the first half, Sunderland barely enjoyed a kick, such was Swansea’s eagerness to pressurise the ball carrier and force cheap giveaways.

Centre-halves Ashley Williams and Steven Caulker revelled in stepping over halfway to lay siege to Sunderland’s territory.

But after the break, Sessegnon dropped a couple of steps deeper and with Sunderland more careful on the rare occasions they found the ball at their feet, they were able to pick out the diminutive forward to keep Swansea’s back four occupied.

The credit for the match-clinching goal lay with the technique and control of Craig Gardner, yet Sessegnon still had the vision to pick out the substitute with an inch-perfect crossfield pass.

How many others in Sunderland’s ranks would have picked that option, rather than using the overlapping James McClean?

There lies Sessegnon’s worth. In a squad largely composed of hard-working, reliable and solid performers, the Benin Bullet is the one figure capable of complementing O’Neill’s familiar well-organised style with a moment of wizardry.