This is how a new-look Sunderland side went to the top of League One with stunning attacking display
Sunderland returned to the top of League One with a quite superb dispay of attacking football against Cheltenham Town.
A first-half brace from Ross Stewart set the Black Cats on their way after Bailey Wright’s early header, and goals from Luke O’Nien and Leon Dajaku in the second half added a deserved gloss to the scoreline.
In truth, it could have been more.
Sunderland shuffled their pack and delivered a performance of total dominance, with Nathan Broadhead announcing himself to a jubilant Stadium of Light crowd with a display of verve and constant movement.
Even though some defensive changes had been expected due to injury, Johnson’s team selection had caught the eye, representing a shift away from the template that has offered such a good start to the season.
Elliot Embleton and Alex Pritchard dropped to the bench, Johnson opting for the running power of Aiden O’Brien and Nathan Broadhead.
Perhaps less surprisingly was a rest for Dan Neil, dropping out of the starting XI for the first time in a league game this season.
If the changes had caught the eye, then it took only a couple of minutes for the gameplan to make sense.
Broadhead was operating very much as a striker, pushed right up alongside Stewart.
Sunderland immediately looked to spring their runners behind the Cheltenham back three, who looked uncomfortable and out of sorts from the off.
It yielded a goal within ten minutes.
Carl Winchester sprung Broadhead clear with a precise ball over the top, and the Everton loanee took it round the onrushing goalkeeper. With the angle narrowed he opted to cut the ball back for Stewart, The Scot should have scored, but found the trailing leg of the one Cheltenham defender who had managed to scramble back onto the goalline.
That reprieve for the visitors lasted seconds, McGeady landing the corner on Wright’s head at the front post. His effort was deft, running across the goalkeeper and into the far corner.
Michael Duff’s side briefly rallied, and Freestone ought to have done better when he ran onto a cross to the back post and headed over from close range. It has been sluggish defending by the hosts to allow the short corner routine, but that moemnt of concern would prove to be brief.
Sunderland continued to dominate possession even if the clear chances dried up briefly.
Winchester went close with a rasping effort from 30 yards, but a stunning passage of play before the break saw the hosts treble their lead.
The second was a fine counter from deep in their own half, sparked by Broadhead as he linked up with Stewart. There were one or two fortunate bounces of the ball along the way but Sunderland were rewarded for their bravery when O’Brien was able to spring Winchester clear as he drove forward down the right.
He played the ball inside the Cheltenham defence, and Broadhead showed his composure to dummy the ball and let it run to the back post. There Stewart had a simple finish, sweeping the ball past Flinders with ease.
He went close to a second when heading a good cross from McGeady over the bar at the back post, but his wait would not be long.
Sunderland worked the ball to the edge of the box and Broadhead then cut the visiting defence open with a delightful dinked pass. McGeady had read it, and showed his composure to slide across goal. Stewart has his simplest finish yet, turning home from inside the six-yard box.
The home side showed no signs of easing the pressure, Stewart steaming clear when another ball over the top presented an opening. The Scot just couldn’t make a strong enough connection to seal his hat-trick, and it was the same for McGeady as he tried to meet the loose ball.
Broadhead almost sealed a superb half with the goal he deserved when bursting through on goal, but his left-footed effort flashed just wide of the near post.
Cheltenham unsurprisingly changed shape at the break and though it initially brought them a foothold in the game, Sunderland quickly took control again.
Broadhead was denied by a superb stop from Flinders after good combination play between O’Nien and O’Brien capitalised on a slack pass out from the visiting defence.
The Welshman was constantly in the game, firing into the side netting after a pass inside from McGeady shortly after.
The visitors had again been quickly penned back in their own half, Stewart going close to his hat-trick goal when beating Flinders to a loose ball. Under pressure and from a narrow angle his effort was just not strong enough, allowing Freestone to clear from just in front of the line.
Sunderland were dominant, O’Brien and Evans forcing saves from Flinders as they went in search of a fourth.
They would not have to wait long.
Stewart showed his agility to draw a foul when chasing what seemed a lost cause into the corner, and the free kick then dropped for Evans at the back post. His low cross found Luke O’Nien, who fired confidently into the bottom corner.
The fifth came almost instantly, Broadhead doing superbly to take down another superb lofted pass over the top. Cheltenham were just able to recover, but the loose ball fell for substitute Leon Dajaku and he curled a fine effort into the top corner.
With a long and important trip to Portsmouth looming, the tempo understandably began to wind down through the final quarter.
A fine night ended on one sour note as Broadhead seemed to pull up with a muscle injury, leaving Suderland to see out the final minutes with ten.
They did so with ease.
It was some statement.