From a manager’s perspective, no game is ever irrelevant. Or at least it shouldn’t be because no matter how low key the game, or how little is at stake, there is always something you can learn in every game. Every training session is a chance to discover something new, for that matter.
Tuesday night may have turned out to be a very comfortable victory against an extremely young and inexperienced Manchester City U21 side, but after a period of unconvincing performances, this game could prove a vital factor as we approach the defining part of the season.
This was the third Checkatrade Trophy game I’d taken in at the Stadium of Light this season and by far the most enjoyable to watch. Whilst City were weakened by the loss of a few of their older heads due to their inclusion in last night’s League Cup semi-final at Burton, they still had more potential to cause Sunderland problems than either Stoke or Newcastle previously. For all their lack of real dangerous play, you could still see the intelligence of their movement and thought processes behind their play. Not to mention the searing pace that the likes of full-back Jeremie Frimpong possesses.
Despite that, the only thing to really get tested was Lee Cattermole’s discipline after being cautioned after an ill-conceived Cruyff turn outside his own box got him into trouble.
That said, this is where the positives began for Sunderland. His response was measured and apart from a couple of dicey moments where fouls drew a sharp intake of breath through my teeth in concern of a second yellow, I actually enjoyed watching Lee play. He was able to have time on the ball and switch play with some long-range passes to waiting wide men on both flanks.
The big story of the night was of course Duncan Watmore getting on the scoresheet for the first time since his comeback. And what a well-taken goal it was too. For all his pace and endeavour, if there’s one criticism that has been levelled at him, it’s the lack of composure he can often display when in dangerous areas, but not on Tuesday night.
Even leaving the goal to one side, I thought Duncan had the look of a more mature player, drifting inside into the half places between central defender and full-back to pick up the ball – and his finish for the goal was nigh on perfect. He showed patience in allowing the ball to come to him and didn’t slash at it. It was an excellent strike.
For me, though, the biggest plus of the night was the performance of Benjamin Kimpioka. From the moment I saw him for the first time against Stoke City U21s, I thought we have a player on our hands here.
He has all the physical attributes to play that role as a lone striker, but I like how direct he is and also how he isn’t afraid to hold onto the ball inside the box when he has his back to goal.
Of course, Lynden Gooch’s goal was the icing on the cake, but Kimpioka makes me feel less worried about the situation with Josh Maja.
As I write this column, it looks like Maja has played his last game for the club, and we all have to be adults about the situation.
As disappointing as it is to lose someone who has 15 league goals this season, and looks to be developing into the kind of player we’d want to build an attack around, at this moment in time the club is not in a position to compete with a Bordeaux, Celtic or any other club of that nature who might be interested.
What the club have been weighing up is whether money in the bank to replace Maja now, or having him in the side to potentially score another 10 goals and allow him to go at the end of the season, is the best thing to do.
It looks like being the former - but if so, and we don’t have time to do a deal for another striker, don’t let ourselves be too disheartened. Take a leaf out of Marcelo Bielsa’s book at Leeds United and put trust in the youngsters we already have at the club.
Let’s put our trust in Kimpioka. He won’t let us down.