Richard Mennear's analysis: Why this trio have a key role to play in Sunderland's survival hopes

It had been a bruising week for Sunderland, with defeats to Swansea City and Chelsea coupled with the club's bleak financial position outlined for all to see.

Monday, 19th December 2016, 11:00 am
Updated Thursday, 29th December 2016, 2:10 pm
Patrick van Aanholt roars his approval in celebrating hitting Sunderland's winner against Watford. Picture by Frank Reid

Fans warned not to expect much – if any – movement in the January transfer market, while manager David Moyes had given a brutally honest assessment about his own thoughts on the matter.

With Christmas just around the corner, there was little to cheer heading into Saturday’s game against a mid-table Watford side well marshalled by Walter Mazzarri.

Yet, despite the dismal defeat to Swansea seven days prior, there was still a sense of optimism on Wearside given the spirited display against Chelsea.

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Watford, though, really was a must-win game.

The thought of the four-point deficit to safety being increased before a Christmas cracker had been pulled didn’t bear thinking about.

Immense credit, therefore, is due to Moyes and his threadbare squad – ravaged by injury, with Jan Kirchhoff the latest to join the sicklist – for keeping up their end of the bargain.

Mazzarri’s Hornets know every trick in the book when it comes to frustrating teams, winning free-kicks and generally being a pain to play against.

But well-drilled Sunderland showed great team spirit and determination to come away with all three points, Patrick van Aanholt sealing the win with a smart finish.

Just in time for Christmas too. The Premier League table looks far healthier.

Four wins in seven games is an impressive record for any side and the management team and players deserve praise for turning the season around.

Moyes patrols the technical area for pretty much the entire game, cajoling, encouraging, barking orders ensuring the players maintain their shape and discipline.

The 53-year-old faced heavy criticism when Sunderland couldn’t buy a win, Moyes facing flak for his summer signings.

A few of them are starting to prove their doubters wrong.

Papy Djilobodji enjoyed his best game in a Sunderland shirt, as did Jason Denayer in the holding midfield role.

Sunderland splashed out £8million on Senegal defender Djilobodji in the summer, with little known about the centre-back given his lack of game time at Chelsea.

A number of shaky and unconvincing performances early on doing little to ease concerns. But there have been definite signs of improvement in recent weeks.

Against Watford, he was all over winning headers, giving Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo few clear chances and he also had time to wipe out the linesman with a slide tackle.

It was a commanding performance at the heart of Sunderland’s defence alongside powerful Lamine Kone, who also shone.

The pair were focused, well organised, well-drilled and maintained concentration throughout.

In front of them, Manchester City loanee Denayer was patrolling the space, quick to close down Watford’s attacking midfielders and mop up loose balls.

His passing, at times, was astray but overall it was an impressive shift by the Belgian.

He has come into his own in that holding midfield role, which has helped Sunderland cope with the loss of Lee Cattermole, Paddy McNair and Kirchhoff to long-term injuries.

Denayer’s preferred position is centre-back and there is every chance he could be moved back there when Kone heads off on Africa Cup of Nations duty with Ivory Coast.

But for now, Moyes will be keen to keep him snapping away at heels in central midfield.

That central axis of Djilobodji, Kone and Denayer was a key factor in the win over Watford.

Other players paid their part too, Jordan Pickford again excellent in goal, Donald Love and van Aanholt kept their shape and added an attacking dimension from full-back.

Adnan Januzaj built on his performance against Chelsea, while Fabio Borini and Victor Anichebe provided much-needed support to Jermain Defoe.

Didier Ndong, playing alongside Denayer in a 4-2-3-1 formation, was steady if not spectacular.

The Gabon international was full of running, but his passing radar was off, with the Sunderland side guilty of losing possession too easily and gifting away cheap free-kicks.

Those criticisms aside, this was a spirited performance from Sunderland, who are down to a core group of about 15 senior first-team players with the bench again fleshed out with youngsters.

The first half was poor, with Sunderland not doing enough to close down Watford. Pickford made an acrobatic stop two minutes in to deny Nordin Amrabat’s volley.

Ighalo then denied a glorious chance from close range before Miguel Britos missed the easiest chance of them all – nodding a Jose Holebas free-kick wide.

Sunderland finished the half strongly, with van Aanholt bursting into the box only to see a drilled shot repelled by the legs of Heurelho Gomes.

Whatever Moyes said at half-time had the desired affect and it wasn’t long into the second half before the Dutch left-back got his revenge.

Januzaj did well to spin away from his man before feeding Defoe, with his low cross hooked home by van Aanholt at the second attempt.

It was a smart finish which proved the winner.

Anichebe flashed an effort wide as Sunderland looked for a second goal, while, up the other end, Pickford saved from substitute Daryl Janmaat and Ighalo late on.

It was a typically nervy end to a Sunderland game, with John O’Shea brought on as a calming presence.

Moyes had said this was a must-win game.

And his men were up to the challenge.

Sunderland raised their game in the second half and with it further raised hopes of another successful battle against the drop.

Fans will be raising a glass to Moyes & Co this Christmas Day.