How Sunderland's Patrick Roberts won key battle in Middlesbrough win as Amad Diallo partnership flourishes

When a player comes up against their former club, there is sometimes a feeling they have a point to prove.

Perhaps that was the case for Patrick Roberts as he lined up for Sunderland against previous employers Middlesbrough at the Stadium of Light.

The 25-year-old played a key part in the Black Cats’ 2-0 win, prevailing in a key battle which always looked likely to influence the result.

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Roberts was up against Middlesbrough’s attack-minded left-back Ryan Giles, who has recorded nine league assists, the most in the Championship according to Wyscout, this season.

Patrick Roberts playing for Sunderland against Middlesbrough.

It therefore appeared there may be greater scrutiny on Roberts’ defensive responsibilities – which were questioned by former Boro boss Neil Warnock during the player’s spell at Boro.

Yet a look at Roberts’ heatmap in the first half against Middlesbrough (when both sides still had 11 players before Dael Fry’s 49th-minute red card) shows it was the Sunderland man who was getting on the front foot.

From Middlesbrough’s perspective, Giles was able to deliver just three crosses into the Sunderland box, down on his season average of 7.3 crosses per match.

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Figure One: Patrick Roberts' heatmap vs Middlesbrough.

Roberts’ use of the ball against Middlesbrouh also proved decisive, with the playmaker striking a defence-splitting pass for Stewart just after half-time – leading to a Sunderland penalty and Fry’s dismissal. In total Roberts produced five passes which led to shots at goal – more than any other player on the pitch.

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Sunderland’s second goal nine minutes from time was also created by Roberts after the 25-year-old received the ball and cut in from the right before setting up team-mate Amad.

Black Cats boss Tony Mowbray has been trying to find ways to fit both players into his starting XI in recent months, with an injury to Alex Pritchard leading to Roberts’ recall and Amad’s shift to a more central position.

Against Middlesbrough the partnership flourished, with Amad and Roberts exchanging passes 41 times - the highest combination of any two players on the pitch.

Figure Two: Patrick Roberts and Amad attack down Sunderland's right flank against Middlesbrough.
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As shown in figure two, that regularly left problems for Giles as Roberts and Amad regularly doubled up on Sunderland’s right – posing a significant attacking threat while also blunting one of Middlesbrough’s main weapons.

The Roberts-Amad combination is certainly one Sunderland fans will be excited to see more of for the remainder of the season.