Inside a crucial and eventually very impressive win for Sunderland - and why it's so encouraging
If you’re four points off the play-off places but only four points off the bottom four, are you a good team or a bad team, Tony Mowbray had wondered.
The answer, as ever, is probably something in between.
Mowbray’s point had been that this is a division where you can never get too far ahead of yourself and where the table can be incredibly volatile. Don’t overreact to a defeat and certainly don’t get too carried away with a win.
This game could hardly have encapsulated his point better. Sunderland floundered, laboured and then excelled.
The end result is eye-catching. They have moved seven points clear of danger and into tenth, just one point from the play-off places and with an excellent goal difference.
They have done this without arguably their key player in Ross Stewart and one of their biggest summer signings in Dan Ballard. They have done this with a very patchy home record and despite having their defence near-constantly disrupted by injury.
You could, if you weren’t careful, start to get a little bit excited about what lies ahead.
Perhaps the first half offers a useful balance. Mowbray said Gary Rowett probably wouldn’t be able to fathom how his side didn’t take the lead. George Honeyman was denied only by an excellent Corry Evans block, Danny Batth made a goal line clearance and in what was the biggest chance of them all, Zian Flemming fired wide when Anthony Patterson passed the ball straight to him.
Sunderland did have their moments, especially towards the end, but by and large they had been outplayed. Mowbray told his players that they had been in a fight and were second best. Their retention of the ball wasn’t good enough, and nowhere near enough second balls ended up heading towards the Millwall goal.
At this point a 3-0 win seemed a long way off. It had been pretty turgid stuff, a stop-start game that probably left many fans thinking that waiting another week for the return of club football might not have been so bad.
What this Sunderland team has in abundance, though, is both spirit and individual quality. The latter came to the fore in an excellent spell just after the break, in which Sunderland took control and ran away with a game that had looked daunting not long before. There have been a slight hint of fortune in the way Alex Pritchard was able to get into the channel but from there it was real quality on his part. So too the clever backheel from Simms that turned the ball towards goal, and while Amad’s finish may not have been anything spectacular in itself, his aggressive positioning was a perfect reflection of a player adding a ruthless streak to his at times dizzying quality.
The second was even better, Amad breaking the defence open with a delightful pass and finding Lynden Gooch as he took up an aggressive position in the Millwall half. He did well to beat his man and find Pritchard who did the rest.
Sunderland had begun to dominate in midfield and from there everything else flowed. They could well have had more in this spell, Amad gliding away from numerous markers with an almost laughable ease. He has emerged as the talisman of this side during this period, the first player everyone is trying to find on the pitch. As impressive is his willingness to the defensive work, highlighted when he snuffed out one dangerous attack by shepherding a through ball out for a goal kick when his team were vulnerable. The margins in this division are invariably tight, and right now he is proving to be a major point of difference for his team.
What was happening in the other box was by now almost as impressive. Batth was genuinely outstanding, drawing praise from both bosses in the post-match press conferences for his dominance of the penalty box against a side who generally thrive on winning first contacts. Luke O’Nien recovered from a shaky start to impress again, while Aji Alese proved an excellent pick by Mowbray at left back. The head coach admitted he had been loath to leave out the impressive Dennis Cirkin, but Alese’s height was a big bonus and unsurprisingly, his other defensive work was equally sound.
Perhaps a three-nil win flattered Sunderland as Rowett probably fairly argued afterwards, but he was equally quick to praise the way Mowbray’s side had played after taking the lead. They had been unflustered in their defensive work and alive to the possibility of catching Millwall out on the break, as they eventually did when Simms scored with seconds left.
Mowbray had actually been asked on Friday about the possibility of a play-off push in the second half of the campaign and what he expected more generally.
His response was long and thoughtful, the summary of which was that he felt there would almost certainly be moments in the campaign where his team looked to be on the brink of making a real go of it. He also feels there will be spells where form dips and they drop off the pace somewhat.
What excites him is that for the first time he feels he’ll be able to have a real balance in his side, between the technicians he so loves to watch and the power that is so crucial in both boxes. Though some of the cavalry are still to return we got a glimpse of that here, and it goes some way to explain why they were able to win when not at their best for a significant chunk of the game.
What Mowbray also said before the game was that all things considered, Sunderland had to be pretty happy with where they’d got to in their first season back at this level. That is especially true after this win. And when you’ve got Amad, who knows what is possible from here.