The telling Plymouth Argyle comments that underlined Leon Dajaku's encouraging Sunderland progress

Steven Schumacher had a wry smile as he was asked about one of his key selection decisions during his post-match press conference at the Stadium of Light.

By Phil Smith
Tuesday, 14th December 2021, 12:45 pm

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It had been a relatively steady start in management for Schumacher, after the turbulence of Ryan Lowe's sudden departure for Preston North End.

A spirited point at MK Dons, and though Sunderland were deserving of their win here, Schumacher had seen his side improve significantly in the second half.

Sunderland's two-goal start had left him with one slight regret, though.

Sunderland winger Leon Dajaku

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The opening goal was an excellent set piece, 'clever and inventive', as he described. The second, though, highlighted a weakness that Sunderland had ruthlessly exploited.

Ahead of the game Schumacher had been presented with a problem.

Conor Grant is the regular left wing-back in their preferred 3-5-2 shape, and scored that equaliser at Milton Keynes. But injury ruled him out of this one, and left Schumacher with a decision to make.

Ryan Broom had played wing-back for Cheltenham Town in the past, but is predominantly a right-sided player.

Putting him there would mean bringing Joe Edwards over to the other flank, but Schumacher was reluctant to do that because all of his analysis on Sunderland warned of the threat that Lynden Gooch and Nathan Broadhead would pose.

That meant he wanted a round peg in a round hole where it would seemingly be needed most.

Within half an hour he was forced to switch. It was testament both to Lee Johnson and his players, whose gamplan was perfectly deployed.

A sign that this Sunderland group are in their groove is when they create overloads in the channels, neat passing triangles that open up space (think Broadhead's stunning strike against Cambridge United, for example).

Bailey Wright played his right back/ centre back role well, while Alex Pritchard and Ross Stewart linked up with him well.

Key to the strategy was that when they did so, Leon Dajaku was invariably making the right run.

Broom found the winger impossible to contain, Dajaku producing the assist for Broadhead's goal and going close to getting on the scoresheet himself on a couple of occasions.

That Edwards was brought over to deal with him (which, to his credit, he did fairly well) was a glowing endorsement of his performance, and underlined how he looks to have settled into life on Wearside in recent weeks.

His ability, quite clearly, was never in question.

Right from the start of his Sunderland career there have been flashes of the technical skill required to come through the ranks at Bayern Munich, delightful strikes against Cheltenham and Crewe the obvious examples.

In dire team performances at Portsmouth and Rotherham, though, Dajaku struggled as the gamestate left him little chance to show off his best attributes, and perhaps exposed some off-the-ball weaknesses.

One of the quirks of the current injury crisis is that it has actually given some players a consistent run of starts that they really needed, and Dajaku has arguably been the key beneficiary.

The lopsided 4-2-3-1 allows him to focus on his attacking play, with Wright (and often the superb Carl Winchester) sweeping up behind him. Crucially, he looks now to be more settled and in sync with the philosophy and his team-mates around him.

Encouraging signs, for Johnson and Sunderland.

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