Sunderland 2 Betis 0: Phoney war, but Rodwell shows real promise

Jack Rodwell tracks a Real Betis player in last night's friendly at Bishop Auckland. Picture by David Allan
Jack Rodwell tracks a Real Betis player in last night's friendly at Bishop Auckland. Picture by David Allan
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ALAN IRVINE made the diligent step of making a scouting trip to the humble surroundings of Heritage Park.

Eight days before the Premier League opener, will the new West Brom boss have learned a great deal from the Baggies’ opponents in the curtain-raiser?

Probably not.

As with the bulk of Sunderland’s friendly outings this pre-season, last night’s encounter fell into the category of functional, but unspectacular.

The late goals from Steven Fletcher and Connor Wickham – both smartly taken – thankfully changed the narrative from Sunderland’s troubles in finding the net.

But up until that final 10 minutes, this was another game with minimal goalmouth activity, where only a couple of agricultural second-half challenges had threatened to liven proceedings.

Unfortunately, that is largely what happens in pre-season.

Supporters get worked up about this or that from the friendlies they take in, but these games will forever be an exercise in fitness and sharpening the passing radar.

There were no earth-shattering lessons yesterday which Irvine couldn’t have discovered from casting a gaze over the bulk of Sunderland’s games under Poyet from last season.

The only real intrigue for the 2,000 Sunderland fans in attendance was how this week’s signings fared – well, one of them in particular.

Santiago Vergini offered no surprise.

The biggest shock was seeing him wander off the team bus, before his season-long loan signing was hastily confirmed by the club moments later.

Vergini simply carried on from where he left off last season; looking neat in possession and highlighting that he is just as comfortable – if not more so – at right-back than at centre-half.

But it’s a big plus for Sunderland boss Gus Poyet to know what he will get from Vergini. Signing an unknown Argentine so close to the start of the season would have been asking for trouble.

While Vergini was the practical acquisition of this week, Jack Rodwell was very much an A List signing for Sunderland.

After working with Rodwell when he was coming through the ranks at Everton, ex-Toffees coach Irvine will know all about the £10million midfielder.

There was nothing immediately salivating during Rodwell’s 45-minute appearance. This was all about minutes for the England man after limited involvement during Manchester City’s friendly programme.

But even in that relatively brief outing, there was an instantly notable element to Rodwell’s game which has been sadly lacking from Sunderland’s midfield for far too long – the ability to get forward.

He had a tap-in ruled out for offside midway through the first half when Emanuele Giaccherini had been flagged well before, yet it was a sign.

Another came moments later when the bright Adam Johnson burst down the right and pulled it back to Rodwell, 20 yards out, where he scuffed a shot which was fairly routine for Betis stopper Antonio Adan.

But persistently in that first half, Rodwell latched onto passes on the edge of the area and was willing to get the other side of the centre-forward.

That’s a key facet to Poyet’s system, with just one striker leading the line.

The two central midfielders who have licence to get forward have to offer a goal threat, rather than simply being static.

It was pedestrian and predictable too often last season and it is why Poyet was so keen to ensure the box-to-box midfielder acquired by Sunderland was a quality one.

But while Rodwell has filled one gulf, another one has opened, with the question mark now centring on who will start at The Hawthorns on the left flank.

Fabio Borini is obviously Poyet’s principal solution to fill that position in the long term.

But with Borini still receiving treatment for the shoulder injury he sustained on Liverpool’s pre-season tour of America, even if Sunderland signed the Italian tomorrow, he would be unlikely to start the season.

Giaccherini would have filled that void in the meantime, yet the groin strain he suffered last night was a sizeable blow to Poyet’s plans.

Who starts there now?

Jordi Gomez? Charis Mavrias? Neither is ideal.

Giaccherini had looked lively in the opening half-hour too, as he was given licence to drift inside from the left to such an extent that he was almost operating as a number 10.

The Italian international had produced Sunderland’s best effort of the first half, when he collected Rodwell’s pass in the second minute on the left-hand side of the area, cut inside and curled a shot just over the top.

From that point, until the 80th minute, Sunderland were well on top, without doing much with it.

That changed thanks to a mistake, as substitute Fletcher robbed Betis centre-half Gonzalez Bruno to leave himself with just Adan to beat.

Fletcher kept his cool with an immaculate, low, left-footed shot from the edge of the area which bounced a couple of times before nestling in the bottom corner.

Gomez then whistled a long-range shot just past the post, before Wickham did double Sunderland’s advantage.

Wickham tried to feed Fletcher on the edge of the area, before the ball bounced invitingly back into his path and he smashed a left-footed shot inside the near post.

The England Under-21 striker could even have doubled his tally at the death when he burst away down the right, but saw his shot across goal blocked well by Adan.

If Irvine had stayed around to see those two fine goals, he was keeping incognito.

But ,thankfully the phoney war of pre-season is almost over.

It’s eight days and counting until Irvine has to lock horns with Poyet for real.

SUNDERLAND: Mannone, Vergini (Mavrias 46), O’Shea (Brown 46), Roberge, van Aanholt, Bridcutt, Larsson, Rodwell (Cattermole 46), Giaccherini (Gomez 38), Johnson (Fletcher 67), Wickham. Sub not used: Pantilimon.

BETIS: Adan, Molinero, Bruno, Jordi, Xavi (Matilla 46), Pacheco (Chuli 46), Renella (Molina 73), Perquis, Cedrick, Castro, Alex. Subs not used: Gimenez, Carlos, Nono, Isaac, Isuardi, Garcia, Caro, Rodriguez, Pedro.