SAFC Analysis: Youngsters make their point in Checkatrade Trophy, but biggest positive was Jan Kirchhoff's return to action
But the revamped Football League Trophy presents Sunderland with a window of opportunity in more ways than one.
The competition has come in for heavy criticism this season, with supporters in the Football League unhappy that Premier League sides have been able to enter their Under-23 sides.
It has resulted in fans boycotting matches, with attendances you would normally see in non-league.
That wasn’t the case at Rochdale last night at the Crown Oil Arena, or Spotland to you and me. A crowd of 1,184 – including a few hundred Sunderland fans – watched the action unfold as Sunderland kicked off their Checkatrade Trophy challenge.
This was the first of three group games in Northern Group F, with a trip to Hartlepool United and home game againstNotts County to come in the next two international breaks.
First-team coach Robbie Stockdale, overseeing proceedings with Andy Welsh as his assistant, was expecting a tough game.
And he got one. The first half lacked quality and much goalmouth action of any note, but it was a competitive fixture and an excellent test for the club’s younger players.
Sunderland named Jan Kirchhoff, returning from a hamstring strain that has kept him out since the penultimate friendly against Montpellier in France, and on-loan Manchester City defender Jason Denayer in the starting line-up.
Both eased through the game. Denayer looked solid, athletic with a no-nonsense approach to defending. But he also showed he is capable of playing the ball out from the back too.
At one stage in the first half, he went on a mazy run towards the Dale goal.
It was a far from easy night though, as Ian Henderson and Callum Camps caused the Sunderland defence constant problems.
For Kirchhoff, this was his first start of the season, with manager David Moyes and assistant Paul Bracewell watching on from the stands.
For the German, this was a useful fitness-building evening. He eased through the opening 45 minutes barely getting out of third gear.
His lack of minutes caught up with him in the second half, but the good news is he made it through the full 90 minutes and is now surely in contention for the Premier League match at home to Everton on Monday.
The main aim of the revamped Checkatrade Trophy is to give the younger players valuable game time and Sunderland have several youngsters who impressed.
Max Stryjek, in goal, was a busy man and he showed his talent with a string of impressive saves.
Captain-for-the-night Tommy Robson impressed down the left-hand side, bombing forward from full-back at every opportunity.
You could see how much the penalty shoot-out loss meant to him by the expression on his face as he left the pitch.
Elliot Embleton’s goal – which gave Sunderland the lead – was superb, while Josh Robson and Ethan Robson all looked comfortable against League One opposition.
With Moyes watching on from the stands, Sunderland lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, with George Honeyman supporting 17-year-old Josh Maja up front.
Rochdale, though, forced the early pressure, Stryjek pushing away a Peter Vincenti header – although the 20-year-old made a meal of his save, in truth.
Denayer then had to clear from in front of his own goal after a mix-up in communication between captain Tommy Robson and Stryjek saw the ball fly across the face of goal.
Denayer was on hand again after 10 minutes to first block a Peter Vincenti effort before getting up to clear the danger in robust fashion.
Four minutes later, Sunderland had the ball in the net, Maja prodding home Rees Greenwood’s scuffed effort, but the flag was correctly raised for offside.
Rochdale dominated possession in the opening half hour, but Sunderland edged their way back into the game – which lacked quality and goalmouth action.
Stryjek was called into action five minutes before the break, flying to his right to punch wide a 30-yard Camps free-kick. Vincenti then nodded wide from a Dale corner.
Sunderland finished the half strongly, Honeyman forcing Josh Lillis into a save, palming his 20-yard effort over the bar, before Kirchhoff headed an Ethan Robson free-kick wide.
There was an early scare in the second half, Michael Ledger slicing the ball against his own crossbar before Sunderland took the lead in the 51st minute, Embleton producing a superb finish past Lillis in the Rochdale goal.
The 17-year-old played a one-two with Maja on the edge of the area before curling the ball into the left-hand corner of the net with a fine, left-footed finish.
Sunderland only held the lead for seven minutes, though, Dale captain Henderson bundling home a fierce Jamie Allen free-kick from close range after 58 minutes.
Rochdale then cranked up the pressure, with Stryjek saving well from a Vincenti free header from a corner.
With 15 minutes left, sub Nathaniel Mendez-Laing was played in by Henderson, but, as he shaped up to shoot, Ledger got across to produce a brilliant block.
Rochdale had a goal chalked off with just over 10 minutes to go – Henderson produced a brilliant strike that hit the post and Allen knocked in the rebound.
The hosts ended the game strongly, but Sunderland’s youngsters held on for a point, with the hosts then winning the penalty shoot-out for an additional bonus point.
Plenty of positives as Sunderland launched their Checkatrade Trophy challenge, but the biggest was Kirchhoff getting through a full 90 minutes unscathed.