Wise Men Say: The TWO key partnerships who proved vital in Sunderland's win over Portsmouth
SUNDERLAND’S season may have got off to as slow a start as a Renault Espace lining up alongside F1 cars at Silverstone, but finally we have three points to celebrate.
While there were a smattering of new signings, Jack Ross’s starting XI had a familiar feel about it, with the manager reverting to the 4-2-3-1 that seems to suit his players the most. We haven’t seen the last of the 3-5-2, indeed it made an appearance in the last five minutes as the Black Cats saw out the victory, but against Portsmouth you could see the players were mostly settled in their roles and, pleasingly there were no shocking performances like we have seen against Oxford and Ipswich Town.
There was plenty to be encouraged about. Conor McLaughlin, looking very much like a League One right-back playing at left-back, managed to stay out of trouble and actually emerged with some credit which will do him the world of good at his new club following a poor start to his season.
Luke O’Nien isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and against better sides he has been found wanting, but was excellent on Saturday back in the right-back role he made his own last season, while the inclusion of Aiden McGeady and Chris Maguire gave us a bit of impetus going forward.
But it was two key partnerships that won us the game and, should we persist with 4-2-3-1, these players will be key to a successful season.
Jordan Willis lined up alongside Alim Ozturk for the first time in the league, and you wonder why Ross didn’t start the season like this. Ozturk finished 18-19 in fine form, atoning for a few early-season mistakes which Ross seemed to punish more heavily than his preferred duo of Jack Baldwin and Tom Flanagan, and was bombed out again despite coming back from the close season seemingly in good shape.
It is patently obvious that in Willis and Ozturk, Ross has his strongest defensive partnership. Not only do they complement each other with the natural balance of left-footed and right-footed, Willis’ pace makes up for Ozturk’s lack thereof, while Ozturk’s distribution from the back lends itself to the agricultural in contrast to Willis carrying the ball out silkily.
Against the strength and height of Portsmouth, Willis and Ozturk coped admirably and were more than a match for their physical opponents. Defensively, it is arguably the best partnership we have had for some time.
The second partnership was as important in controlling the game, especially in the second half. Max Power and Grant Leadbitter got the nod and they proved why they deserve to start at Rochdale tomorrow with a mature and commanding display. While at times they sat too deep, they settled in and went about their task without any fuss.
Leadbitter was Aitor Karanka’s lieutenant in the middle of the park for Middlesbrough when they achieved promotion to the Premier League in 2016, and he filled that role for his hometown club to great effect on Saturday. Starting moves, breaking attacks down, being in the right place at the right time – it was just what Sunderland needed.
Power was the link between midfield and attack, and while it can be argued that you don’t need two deep lying midfielders in League One, Power and Leadbitter were dynamic, covering every blade of grass as they sought not to match up against Portsmouth’s rough and tumble game but to play around them.
It remains to be seen whether Ross will continue with 4-2-3-1, and questions still linger over how to get the best out of Will Grigg, but these two key partnerships staked their claims to be part of the starting line-up going forward – continuing at Rochdale tomorrow.