There’s been a painfully obvious requirement for Sunderland to strengthen in central defence as John O’Shea and Wes Brown have gone deeper into the Autumn of their careers.
The ex-Manchester United pair have provided Sunderland’s most reliable partnership in the heart of the back four over the last two to three years, yet age has clearly not been on their side.
But rather than invest significantly in central defence – such as ex-transfer target Virgil van Dijk who joined Southampton for £10million last summer – Sunderland have gone for the make-do-and-mend solutions.
Valentin Roberge, Modibo Diakite, Sebastian Coates, Santiago Vergini and Younes Kaboul have all come in during the last two-and-a-half years, with only the latter proving to be consistently competent.
Even then, Kaboul’s injury record is why Sunderland were able to land a French international boasting an abundance of Premier League experience, for just £3m.
Kaboul’s probable return to the squad for West Ham in 12 days time will be welcomed, but no defensive cohesion can be established in a back four when one of the central defenders spends half of the fixture list watching from the stands.
Lamine Kone’s instant success in a Sunderland shirt has been an intrinsic part of taking four points from Liverpool and Manchester United, yet it does prompt the question over why the Black Cats didn’t land a player in that mould years ago?
It’s not as if Kone was a complete unknown in the French league like Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez.
This was a guy who was on Sam Allardyce’s radar at West Ham 18 months ago and was making his desire to move to the Premier League crystal clear last summer.
Kaboul’s injury, Coates’s ability and Brown’s ageing years (albeit he did what was necessary in the back-to-back wins over Aston Villa and Swansea last month) forced Allardyce’s hand in targeting a central defender in the January window.
But a sizeable investment of £5m in a proven, battling defender has instantly improved this side.
Ever since Kone’s impressive debut against Manchester City a fortnight ago, he has provided that power and pace which Sunderland have so dearly needed, plus offering a set-piece weapon – even if he was bafflingly denied a first goal in red and white by officialdom awarding the winner to United keeper David De Gea as an own goal following the defender’s powerful header.
Crucially, the Ivory Coast international has brought the best out of O’Shea too.
O’Shea’s organisational abilities are exemplary, but, at 34, he’s not going to win a foot-race.
With a central defensive partner who can do the running and covering for him though, O’Shea was outstanding against his old club – time and again proving to be in the right place at the right time to thwart Louis van Gaal’s unconvincing outfit.
On three occasions in the opening 20 minutes alone, O’Shea intercepted at the near post to thwart danger before it materialised.
Wayne Rooney never had a sniff.
Even in the closing stages of the first half, after Anthony Martial’s cute equaliser – when United enjoyed their only dominant spell of the game as Juan Mata found space to dictate proceedings – they did not produce a meaningful effort on Vito Mannone’s goal.
Having that solid central defensive partnership has rubbed off on the rest of the back four.
The transformation in Patrick van Aanholt under Allardyce is truly astonishing, considering the Dutchman was such a liability at the start of the season.
Some of his combination work with Wahbi Khazri down the left was superb, but most impressive is the tenfold improvement in his concentration. He’s even starting to cover in behind the two centre-halves.
Van Aanholt’s confidence is sky-high as a result.
He is desperate to get on the ball at every opportunity, as testified by the doggedness with which he won it and fed Jermain Defoe six yards out just moments after Khazri’s opener.
On the opposite flank, DeAndre Yedlin – in for the injured and error-prone Billy Jones – did enough to earn a decent run in the starting XI.
Yedlin produced a ridiculous dive in the build-up to United’s equaliser, yet had the pace to deal with dangerman Martial, before visiting boss van Gaal bizarrely decided to switch the French international to the opposite flank at half-time.
The American international also offered more of an attacking threat than Jones, with a couple of mazy runs forward, before being caught in possession just as the United defence was stretched.
Sunderland’s defensive effort was not sufficient for them to register a first clean sheet since November.
That remains a key barometer of the Black Cats’ survival hopes.
But there was unquestionably an improvement at the back, which bodes well for a side whose half-century of goals shipped this season can only be matched by Norwich, albeit Newcastle’s rout at Chelsea has left them just one better off.
Sunderland are beginning to find the net at the other end with more frequency after four goals against Liverpool and United, with Allardyce’s side now boasting the best return of the bottom eight.
If the improvement sparked by Kone’s arrival can bring some clean sheets, then what seemed to be another mission impossible to survive in the Premier League might just become plausible.