Phil Smith's verdict: Inside Sunderland's superb cup win at Wigan Athletic and why it could be so significant

Not long into this game, Lee Burge was handed a relatively venomous backpass.

Wednesday, 22nd September 2021, 1:57 pm

If it felt like a moment of jeopardy, then it didn't last long. In two touches and the blink of an eye, Sunderland's goalkeeper had released Niall Huggins into space down the right flank.

Before long, the visitors would have a corner and Burge would get a pointed shout of approval from his head coach.

That is, once he could hear him over the top of the growing din of 1,600 Sunderland fans at the opposite end of the ground, quickly realising that this was going to be a performance to relish.

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A relatively insignificant moment in, all things considered, a relatively insignificant game.

But actually, this little passage of play summed up why this win was one of Sunderland's most encouraging, even if all would agree that the Carabao Cup is far from a priority competition this season.

Lee Johnson rotated his team heavily, and yet the fluidity and cohesion of the side was excellent. As was the application, and as was the quality.

True enough, their opposition showed that they are equally as focused on League One promotion.

Nathan Broadhead fires Sunderland into the lead at the DW Stadium

Any analysis of Sunderland's win must of course come with the caveat that Wigan Athletic made nine changes of their own, and handed out two debuts to summer signings still getting up to speed.

The core of the side that has made such an impressive start to the league season, including former Black Cats' trio Max Power, Charlie Wyke and James McLean, were absent.

Yet it would be equally remiss to downplay the dominance that Sunderland enjoyed over the game, and to get a sense of that you only had to look at the scenes following the final whistle.

The away end celebrated as if this was a defining league win, and a buoyant Lee Johnson revelled in every second of it.

In his post-match press conference the head coach positively fizzed with energy as he dissected the way in which his young and much-changed side had made a quite impressive claim for more league minutes.

From Dennis Cirkin’s quads to Niall Huggins’ energy (‘like a duracell bunny’), to Alex Pritchard’s close control ('you couldn’t get the ball off him in a phone box’), the enthusiasm was infectious.

For Johnson, the excitement was only partially about the result, and as much about what the performance told him about the group at his disposal.

As had been the case against Blackpool in the previous round, the win underlined the way even those who have not been able to enjoy significant league action have been integrated into the new philosophy on the training ground.

For those watching on, the excitement was partially about the result but more broadly about the optimism you were left with for both the short and long term.

For one, it underlined the competition for places and offered reassurance that those who have thus far had a frustrating campaign are ready to step in.

Pritchard delivered his brightest display yet, constantly playing clever passes or winning free kicks in dangerous positions.

Nathan Broadhead was handed a challenging brief against the impressive Curtis Tilt, but continued to make smart runs throughout and was rewarded for his persistence with a superbly-taken goal, and a key part in his team’s second.

Frederk Alves will have more testing nights, for sure, but what he was asked to do he did with ease.

Johnson insists that these players should not be seen as back ups, pointing out that in many cases it’s as much a simple reflection of the fact that they arrived later in the summer.

He’s noted before that in training it can be hard to pick the ‘first’ team apart from the ‘second’, and as he wryly noted after, this showed it’s not lying.

“It’s nice for them to prove that,” he added.

“If you were to do a poll in your papers, then after today, I think everybody would have different ideas about who should play and who shouldn’t.

They just need to keep supporting the team like they have been so well, and I’m sure we can produce performances like that regularly.”

More broadly, it served as another exciting indication that the summer recruitment could be set to usher in an exciting era.

Leon Dajaku made his full debut and given the lack of football he has had this year, looked bright and full of quality. Though he missed an excellent chance to get his first goal just before half time, it was an encouraging start.

It was Cirkin and Huggins who perhaps left the strongest impression.

Cirkin’s performance came as little surprise, a defender improving every time he takes to the field. Here he was again defensively resolute, but particularly exciting is the way we are starting to see his attacking game develop. There was one run from his own half that forced a fine save from Amos, and had it gone on goal of the season would have been settled there and then.

Huggins was equally impressive, solid in his defensive work and relentless in his appetite to push his opposite numbers back.

He had shown his potential at Bloomfield Road in the third round, but stepped it up again here, underlining the quick development he is clearly making behind the scenes.

Carl Winchester has excelled in that role this season, but Huggins’ time will clearly come.

It’s one of many welcome dilemmas Johnson will have to weigh up in the days ahead.

Johnson also felt that there was significance in this game off the back of that last-gasp disappointment at Fleetwood days previous.

He was eager to ensure the positivity and momentum that had been building on Wearside was not slowed by that setback.

If anything, this win felt like another welcome shot in the arm.

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