Sunderland AFC talking point: Why Ndong should have played and what Moyes meant in much discussed remark

Ndong was not picked against Burnley
Ndong was not picked against Burnley
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There is a segment at the end of Five Live’s quite brilliant Fighting Talk show, where the contestants are asked to ‘defend the indefensible’ when presented with a provocative comment.

There is a segment at the end of Five Live’s quite brilliant Fighting Talk show, where the contestants are asked to ‘defend the indefensible’ when presented with a provocative comment.

It is tempting to wonder whether David Moyes’ explanation for not selecting Didier Ndong might feature on this Saturday’s edition.

Perhaps the best starting place is to add some context to the eye-opening claim that ‘Britishness’ was needed in the middle of midfield.

The 4-1 drubbing at Burnley on New Year’s Eve clearly played a part in Moyes’ selections.

It is why Jason Denayer was preferred to Papy Djilobodji, in the hope his speed could deal with Andre Gray. In fact, Denayer may well have played alongside Lamine Kone had the Ivorian been fit.

That call was vindicated, even if his decision on Ndong was not.

By saying he needed ‘Britishness’ in midfield, Moyes was prioritising physicality in a contest that was likely to define who could win the second balls and crucially, who could best cope with the chipped passes over the midfield that destroyed Sunderland in that 4-1 defeat.

In that sense, Jan Kirchhoff’s stature and height was one of the reasons his return was so eagerly anticipated, and his absence probably ushered in Rodwell’s recall.

Seb Larsson had to be pushed wider in order to accommodate moving Fabio Borini up front, which Moyes felt crucial to scoring more goals. His striker did not back up that show of faith, which many onlookers woukd point out is no surprise given performance levels throughout the season.

‘Britishness’ in this sense was probably a euphemism for being battle hardened and having Premier League experience.

What doesn’t quite add up is why that forced Ndong out of the side.

The Gabon man is raw and clearly still learning, but it is difficult to see how a game as cagey as this one would have not actually suited the better part of his game.

In a contest where the ball is often bouncing around the midfield and neither side is making much effort to control possession, his ball winning qualities would have been very useful.

That could be seen just moments after his introduction, catching a player on the ball and releasing Wahbi Khazri for what should have been a glorious chance for Jermain Defoe. Think back to his goal at Selhurst Park, seizing on Joe Ledley’s indecision high up the pitch to open things up for his team, for reference.

It seems strange that when rightly worried about the remarkable work ethic in the Burnley midfield, the most energetic midfielder in the squad was left out.

Sunderland’s pressing certainly suffered, the pre-match logic presumably being that Fabio Borini, a willing runner if not much else at the moment, playing centrally would negate that loss.

It didn’t work, and much of the scrutiny probably stems from the fact that Moyes has often escaped much criticism for team selection due to the admittedly eye-watering injury list.

Ndong is not a matchwinner yet, but he would have added real legs to a one-paced midfield.

He is not the finished product, but Sunderland are unquestionably better when he plays. At his best, he seems to embody much of what Moyes actually means when says ‘Britishness’.