CHRIS YOUNG’S MATCH ANALYSIS
TERRACE tunes catch on quickly.
There were sporadic chants dedicated to Alfred N’Diaye when he made a brief Sunderland debut against West Ham nine days ago.
But before he had even completed a first 90 minutes in red and white, the 5,000 in the away end at the DW Stadium on Saturday were in unified voice over the French midfielder.
They had plenty to sing about.
When Sunderland’s interest in N’Diaye first emerged, his physical measurements alone made him seem ideal for the Black Cats’ requirements – 6ft 2in, quick, muscular and capable of covering the yards.
But the odd YouTube clip and a glance at the CV hardly provided a comprehensive picture over whether N’Diaye was simply a bruiser or possessed the attributes of a more rounded midfielder. The only test for that was to watch him in the flesh.
What N’Diaye demonstrated at the DW Stadium is that he could be one of the finds of the January transfer window, even if there are elements to his game which are understandably still raw.
From a purely physical perspective, N’Diaye injects the presence which has been noticeably absent from Sunderland’s midfield both this season and beyond.
Within the first 60 seconds, he left Shaun Maloney curled up in a heap on the turf after clattering into the Wigan midfielder, somehow without drawing the attention of referee Anthony Taylor.
But the most telling moment of N’Diaye’s muscle came with 10 minutes of the first half remaining, when he overwhelmingly triumphed in a shoulder barge with James McCarthy on the edge of the Sunderland area before prompting a counter-attack by floating a ball to Adam Johnson on the left.
That was a welcome sight, as was N’Diaye winning headers and nipping possession away from the Latics during a nervy second half, even when fatigue saw him fade from his first-half prominence.
The 22-year-old is no one-dimensional ball-winner though, even if he will inevitably collect more than the odd yellow card.
There are rough edges that need to be knocked off.
He gave away the ball needlessly at times and saw an attempted crossfield pass to Craig Gardner head straight into touch just before Wigan’s opener.
But that is to be expected. This is a player still learning his trade, who has only just exceeded 100 career appearances.
What was evident from N’Diaye was a real potential to thrive on this side of the Channel.
Martin O’Neill’s ploy of using N’Diaye as part of a central trio, with Adam Johnson and Stephane Sessegnon supporting Steven Fletcher in advanced inside forward roles, helped to both contain Wigan and give Sunderland an edge going forwards.
Wigan, with their almost archaic wing-back system including three central midfielders, were never able to make the most of their numbers in the engine room during that pivotal first half.
Instead, it was Sunderland who benefited from a midfield trio, with David Vaughan reacting well to his early own-goal blunder by moving O’Neill’s side up the park and Seb Larsson almost directing traffic around him.
N’Diaye had the licence to bomb forward and he did so effectively after fudging the chance for an instant equaliser when he somehow headed Larsson’s free-kick over the top from four yards out.
The £4million man looked to burst down the channels on either side and it was such an overlapping run that provided Sunderland’s second as he raced beyond Johnson and delivered a delicious cross that Fletcher converted at the second attempt.
The system and the vigour with which Sunderland attacked put O’Neill’s side in complete control of the encounter, with only left-sided wing-back Jean Beausejour offering any remote resistance for a confidence-drained Wigan outfit.
But Roberto Martinez went for broke by changing to a gung-ho formation at the interval and it brought the end of any dominance Sunderland had enjoyed in the middle of the park.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic, the Black Cats still produced two counter-attacks when they should have put the game to bed – Larsson and, then more catastrophically, Sessegnon spurning the opportunities.
But there was little chance for N’Diaye to demonstrate his offensive capabilities in the second half. It was a case of dig in, scrap and scramble to secure the three points.
At times, Sunderland were their own worst enemies for such a scenario as they sat deeper and deeper, while making precious few forays into Wigan territory.
Yet it has to be remembered that Wigan had nothing to lose by that stage.
The trio of Gary Caldwell, Emmerson Boyce and occasionally Maynor Figueroa were given the defensive responsibilities while everyone else swept forwards.
Maloney was a different prospect in an orthodox wing role as he jinked past Sunderland defenders in darting runs inside on the diagonal.
Only Simon Mignolet’s brilliance denied Maloney an early second-half goal that would have completely changed the complexion of the encounter, while the woodwork then foiled him from an arcing free-kick.
The Scot, brought south of the border by O’Neill during his stint at Aston Villa, finally earned some reward when he exposed the defensive abilities of Sessegnon before lifting in a cross for the unmarked Angelo Henriquez to head home.
But Sunderland clung on, knowing it was their incisive first-half performance after Vaughan’s own goal which ultimately won them the game.
N’Diaye was at the heart of that spell and if the evidence of one game doesn’t prove to be a false dawn, it won’t be the last time his name is sung with such gusto.