The big talking points from Sunderland's first game in Portugal

Sunderland drew 0-0 with Benfica B on Thursday night but there were plenty of talking points from the game.

By Phil Smith
Friday, 19 July, 2019, 16:39
Benji Kimpioka put in a lively cameo on Thursday night

We run through some of the main ones….

The big Benji Kimpioka debate

The discussion around this raw but unquestionably talented young forward has been in full flow throughout pre-season and it is one that will only be more keenly discussed in the coming weeks.

Kimpioka played the second half against Benfica B and, just as was the case against South Shields days previous, his performance was difficult to assess.

Against Benfica B the Black Cats looked a bit uncertain going forward at the beginning of the second half.

There was nothing surprising about that, a slightly unbalanced shape required to ensure that Jack Ross could carefully manage the minutes of all his players.

Kimpioka was one of the bright sparks.

He brought some dynamism, was a nuisance for the Benfica B defence and brings a direct style that Ross so loves from his forward players.

Some of Sunderland’s best moments came as Kimpioka and Gooch pinned the Benfica right flank back near their own goal.

His end product, however, was again wildly erratic.

His unpredictability is one of his greatest assets but he is lacking composure.

He has plenty of time to work on that, of course, and it’s clear why Sunderland want to sign him up to a new deal. He has great potential.

The debate, though, is whether he can deliver on that now, or whether the rough edges of his game are too much to be relied on in the pressure of a League One promotion race.

Kimpioka will continue to get chances in pre-season and so this debate will rumble on.

Embleton’s moment of magic

Goalscoring chances, particularly in the second half, were hard to come by.

But Duncan Watmore was presented with the best chance of them all when Elliot Embleton sprung him free from just inside his own half.

Embleton had only 20 minutes on the pitch but it was enough to show what he offers.

He had a slightly different role in this game, playing off the left flank rather than right through the middle of the field. He seemed to enjoy it, drifting across the pitch and seeing plenty of possession.

That pass was as precise and skilful as anything offered by Benfica’s prodigiously talented youngsters.

His ability to play those balls off either foot make him unpredictable for the opposition and a real threat.

You can guarantee Jack Ross was watching that move with real interest. That kind of pace and movement off the shoulder of the defender was something he always felt was missing from Sunderland’s armoury all season.

Another clean sheet

Assessing where Sunderland need to improve this season, Ross has been clear.

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“We reflected on last season and why we fell short in losing the play-off final and missing out on promotion, and one of the factors was that we didn’t keep enough clean sheets,” he said.

“That’s as a whole team and as a whole group, and there’s different factors for that, not just individual performances.

“We know that we have to defend better as a team this season, whether that’s strengthening the personnel or changing the way we play.”

So far, two games, two clean sheets.

So just how encouraging is that?

Fairly, is probably the appropriate response.

Both Conor McLaughlin and Jordan Willis have looked good, bringing more of the pace and strength Ross spoke about.

The three at the back system has looked secure enough and crucially, allowed Sunderlan to have the confidence to press higher and more aggressively.

In both games, though, Lee Burge has had to make some very smart stops after defensive lapses.

Both Jack Baldwin and Alim Ozturk improved considerably as this game developed but there remains plenty to work on in this department.

Sammut takes his chance

Sammut deservedly drew praise from Ross after his Sunderland debut, performing with intelligence and great energy.

He might not have even been on the trip had George Honeyman not picked up an injury, and you would guess that he’s still got a lot to do in terms of putting himself in contention for a regular place in the squad.

But all you can do is take your opportunity when it arrives and he had a great 45 minutes.

Ross spoke of his ‘incredible’ fitness post-match and that was certainly on show, as was his willingness to move possession on quickly and effectively.

Promising signs from Lynden Gooch

Gooch had a very difficult end to last season and those struggles continued at South Shields, where he struggled to retain possession and create opportunities.

It is a big season for Gooch after signing a long-term deal last year.

His output in the first half of the campaign was fantastic and if he can repeat that, he will be a key asset.

This game represent an encouraging step forward.

His performance was not perfect, but he was in a very unfamiliar position on the left flank.

There were one or two moments where he lost the ball and almost cost his team, but plenty others where he got past his marker in a way that was once regular last season.

He should have had at least one assist, too, with some good crosses.