Phil Smith's verdict: Inside Sunderland's thrilling win and why Lee Johnson's 'extra signing' is proving key

It didn't always feel quite as straightforward as the final scoreline would suggest.

Wednesday, 20th October 2021, 12:46 pm

From just about minute one, it was clear that Sunderland's movement and quality in the final third would be difficult for a struggling Crewe Alexandra side to deal with.

Even as the Black Cats got to grips with the home side's change in formation, there were moments where in a blink of an eye they were able to play through and find space.

But Crewe were having openings of their own, and you couldn't be sure which way it was going to go.

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Sunderland celebrate Leon Dajaku's goal with supporters

The home side were pressing with intent and Lee Johnson felt his side were too often playing into the trap. Too many square passes, inviting pressure and often coughing up possession when the numbers weren't in their favour.

That this game ultimately finished in such comfortable fashion for the Black Cats spoke to their Sunderland's attacking talent, and a ruthless quality that bodes well for the months ahead.

They had a slice of luck, quite literally, when Terell Thomas made a mess of his clearance under, at best, slight pressure from Ross Stewart nearing his shoulder.

It was, it should be said, a good low cross from Alex Pritchard that did at least force the defender into a decision, and from there it was promising to see Sunderland turn the screw in an excellent spell before the break.

It yielded one goal, and perhaps should have yielded more.

The one it did was one to savour.

Patience down the right flank, passes exchanged and defenders pulled out of position. Then the first break, Pritchard releasing Dan Neil into the box with a deadly through ball.

And then, at the crucial moment where many would have taken an early shot despite the narrow angle, the pivotal touch. Neil showing his composure to instead pause and cross to the back post, where Ross Stewart stooped to score with a clever headed finish.

Johnson has spoken in the past of using good first-team play as examples to be followed through the club.

This passage, something they work on repeatedly in training, building overloads and then finding that run into the box, is destined to be clipped up for best practice.

It was also the sign of a good side sensing vulnerability.

Crewe at this stage will have felt there had not been a great deal wrong with their performance, but the game looked to be just about beyond them.

They kept pushing in the moments after the break, but a good corner from Pritchard found its way to Stewart at the back post and from there the Scot couldn't miss.

This was one element of the game to note, too. Though the final shot count did reflect the fact that both sides had their moments, the quality of chances Sunderland were ultimately able to create was far superior.

The closest the home side really came was minutes later, when Mikael Mandron finally got free of the Sunderland defence and looked for all money to have found the top corner with a deft effort.

As he had done days earlier at Gillingham, Thorben Hoffmann showcased the kind of reflexes you don't usually get to see at his level in somehow turning it round the post.

"A really good save," Johnson said afterwards.

"He's made some great saves since he's been here and that's what you want from your goalkeeper.

"We're blessed really in that we've got three really good shot stoppers, and they're learning all the time in terms of their feet and playing out.

"He's improving all the time."

From there Sunderland countered at will, Crewe exposed as they committed more bodies to the final third in the hope of an unlikely turnaround.

Leon Dajaku's wonderful breakaway underlined Sunderland's attacking power, a strong run and an even better finish that left the goalkeeper with no chance.

Had Johnson's side added one or two more in the closing moments, it would not have been undeserved.

This was not Sunderland at their absolute finest, and against an opponent who have clearly regressed since last season on the back of losing a number of key talents.

But they showed no little quality in possession and a clinical streak that has not always been there in seasons gone by.

And the upshot is that in a moment where injuries have left Johnson with a relatively threadbare squad, they have taken six points on the road to place themselves in a superb position.

No one summed up that strength in depth better than Aiden O'Brien, whose performance had everything but a goal.

Driving in from the right he was a constant thorn in Crewe's side, bringing the best out of those around him with his link-up play.

Johnson had offered O'Brien the chance of a deadline-day loan move to Doncaster Rovers, and it was one the striker was willing to pursue.

The head coach had hoped he wouldn't, and is now immensely grateful the paperwork couldn't be filed in time.

"If you ask Briz, the communication was there right from the start," he said.

"I just said to him that at the moment I have a lot of new signings and I need to know what I've got - you are trusted and I'd love you to stay, but if you want to play every single minute every week then it might be better to go and get games.

"But I was very happy when the loan move didn't go through because it meant that he was like an extra signing, if you like."

His reward for his diligence since then is a place in a purring side, and the adulation of an away end revelling in the football their side is producing.

It's worth just reflecting on one basic statistic.

From seventeen games this season, Sunderland have won fourteen. A superb collective effort.

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