A buoyant Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, a run extended and a new anthem: Inside Sunderland's superb win at Accrington Stanley
As Charlie Wyke crunched into a tackle to win back the ball in the centre of midfield, there came a noise of appreciation from the directors’ box.
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, who along with his fellow directors had been vociferous in his backing of Sunderland throughout their win at Accrington Stanley, rose and applauded the forward’s tenacious play.
For someone more au fait with the glamour of Marseille, Miami and the Maldives, there was a real sense of juxtaposition seeing the billionaire in the humble surroundings of the Wham Stadium.
But the 23-year-old clearly enjoyed and embraced his afternoon in the North West, and was notably delighted when the final whistle sounded and another three points were secured.
Although, if Sunderland’s current form is anything to go by, Louis-Dreyfus may not be returning to this particular corner of England any time soon.
What seemed a long-shot as recently as last month is now a distinct possibility. The top two is within touching distance, a ten-game unbeaten run shows no signs of stopping and a return to the Championship is on the cards.
And if Sunderland keep churning out the results like they did at Accrington, then it will take some going to pip them to an automatic promotion place.
The Black Cats’ latest win was far from their most glamorous, and would certainly be categorised under ‘hard-fought’.
But it is the side’s ability to win no matter the conditions, no matter the test posed by their opponents, that is proving so pleasing.
It was abundantly clear early on that this was going to be a vastly different proposition to that of Tranmere Rovers on Sunday. For starters, the pitch was far from conducive to an attractive style of football and Accrington took a far different tact to that of Sunderland’s last opponents.
While Paul Smyth was a constant threat on the ground with his trickery and movement, the hosts largely took the aerial route in a first half in which they routinely loaded the Wearsiders’ box for long-throws, corners and free-kicks from deep.
Sunderland, though, stood up to the scrutiny. In previous years it has been that kind of route one bombardment that has seen been the side’s downfall – indeed, you don’t have to cast your mind too far back to recall Phil Parkinson practically praying for the ball to be cleared as Gillingham line-up long throw after long throw at Priestfield.
But it’s indicative of the spirit and confidence in the side at present that, no matter the challenge, they battle through.
And while Sunderland did have to do their fair share of defending in the first half, so too did they threaten at the other end – albeit not as much as they perhaps would have liked.
Jack Diamond, handed a start after his impressive cameo at Wembley, forced Toby Savin into one smart stop while Luke O’Nien arguably should have handed the side the lead when he steered a free header wide.
But with the game goalless at half-time, Lee Johnson rolled the dice.
It’s been a bug bear of Sunderland fans in recent years that substitutions are often made too late in the game, given those introduced little time to affect things.
No such criticisms can be levied at Johnson, though. He felt Accrington’s towering backline were keeping Charlie Wyke in check – so threw on a second striker to try and stretch them.
And the impact was immediate. Stewart came close with one looping header before his second attempt opened the scoring, as the striker steered home from a Lynden Gooch cross.
Johnson’s tactical reshuffle – which saw the Black Cats move to a 4-4-2 – paid-off and the side looked far more threatening in the second half, with Stewart and Wyke’s tenacity giving the home defence little time to settle.
That Sunderland could so seamlessly change shape owes much to the work of Johnson and his staff. No longer are the side rigid in their shape and approach – styles can now be tailored to the opposition, and that is undoubtedly giving the Black Cats an edge in these tight encounters.
While much of the focus in the second half was on the forward areas, so too do the backline deserve credit.
For the second league game in a row, they ensured the opposition did not register a shot on target. That’s a remarkable record, particularly when you consider both those games were away from home and against sides with promotion ambitions.
And its as their endeavour to keep Accrington at bay that allowed the lead to be extended late on as Wyke met Max Power’s corner with a deft touch to send it home.
Another three points in the bag, the unbeaten run extended, and the momentum continued.
It was not a game for the football purists, that’s for sure. But there is a real joy to be had in how Sunderland are navigating this run and grinding out results.
Johnson described it as ‘performance momentum’ post-match – and has urged his side to ensure their focus remains internalised and that they ensure the standards that have been set continue to be hit.
As the head coach told the press just that, Daft Punk’s ‘One More Time’ was blaring from the Sunderland dressing room just a few feet away.
It’s quickly become the soundtrack to this ten-game unbeaten run – and with the way the Black Cats are securing results at the moment, you can bet that we will be hearing ‘One More Time’ plenty more times before the season is out.