Sunderland started the season in the best possible way thanks to a stunning strike from an unlikely source, but things soon began to fall back to the norm, including some questionable refereeing and even more questionable defending, until a late, great equaliser rescued a point at The Hawthorns.
With the majority of the starting eleven more or less agreed on, questions surrounded the choice of goalkeeper and central midfielder. It was last seasons Player of the year, Vito Mannone, who got the nod in goal, while Seb Larsson was chosen ahead of Jordi Gomez to partner Jack Rodwell. Santiago Vergini was ruled out, seemingly late on, with an injury, meaning Valentin Roberge found himself thrown into the starting line up, with Wes Brown moved to right back. Connor Wickham meanwhile, started on the left of the front three, with Steven Fletcher leading the line.
It didn’t take long for Sunderland to break the deadlock, although through possibly the most unlikely source. A Seb Larsson delivery in just the fourth minute was only half cleared to Lee Cattermole outside the area, who took a touch to control before smashing it beyond Ben Foster in the West Brom goal.
Despite the high expectations, the partnership between Seb Larsson and Jack Rodwell proved disappointing, with both clearly lacking match sharpness in the middle. It was plain to see the longer the first half went on, which merely contributed to Sunderland’s inability to keep possession. This allowed West Brom to get a grasp on the game, pushing further forward with an equaliser deservedly coming, while we were unable to build on the early lead.
Craig Gardner may have had his fair share of critics during his time on Wearside but one thing he is undeniably good at is striking a ball, and it took a great save from Mannone to deny him an equaliser following a cracking, though deflected, effort. Despite starting to get on top, Gardner’s effort five minutes before the break was the first real test for the Italian, who watched numerous long range strikes fly past the post.
I had been arguing for Roberge to stay and fill one of the gaps at centre back, but it took less than 45 minutes for him to demonstrate why that could be a big risk. Bullied by Anichebe throughout, Roberge clearly struggled all game. After sitting needlessly deep behind O’Shea for large parts of the match, he was penalised for bringing down Anichebe shortly before the break. With the West Brom striker’s eagerness to go to ground, Neil Swarbrick had no hesitation pointing to the spot, a decision which understandably angered Poyet. A very soft penalty to concede nevertheless, and one which cost Sunderland the lead at half time after Berahino stroked home.
Neither side made any changes at the break, and both picked up where they left off with Sunderland failing to control possession and West Brom coming close, only to be penalised for a foul on Mannone. In truth, the Italian simply flapped at a cross.
Ten minutes into the second half, Roberge still couldn’t handle Anichebe, who was able to receive the pass and turn, before poorly scuffing a shot wide. A big let of for Sunderland and Roberge. However, it was Sunderland who had the ball in the net on the hour mark, only to be denied by the linesman. With the ball worked along to Cattermole on the edge of the area, he sent a chipped cross into the box, with Fletcher clearly offside after Brown’s flick on, before powering the header home.
There were two things hyped up this weekend; Jack Rodwell in a Sunderland shirt, and the vanishing spray. Both were largely disappointing. Rodwell, with plenty of room to improve fitness and sharpness wise made way for Jordi Gomez for the first change of the game, before Buckley made his debut, replacing the non-existent Adam Johnson.
The game became more open, with Sunderland gradually starting to create their own chances. However, it was Albion who landed the next blow. Dorrans picked the ball up with minimal pressure from O’Shea, who simply turned and backed off as the Albion man lined up the effort. Mannone, at full stretch, parried the ball away, only for Criag Gardner to pick out Berahino at the back post. With Mannone unable to react quick enough to reach the cross, it was a simple tap in to make it 2-1 to the home side. The entire defence can be criticised however, with all four playing some role in the goal, with van Aanholt especially slow tracking Berahino’s run.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the end of things. A killer though ball from Gomez picked out the run of van Aanholt down the left, and the Dutch left back rolled the ball into the path of Larsson, who brilliantly twisted to stroke the ball past Foster and equalise with just five minutes left.
With tactics going out the window after throwing Altidore on for Brown before the equaliser, Buckley found himself at right back while Altidore ended up in the middle of the park as Sunderland held out and take a point back to Wearside.
Ultimately, the main cause for concern is undoubtedly the defence. Unfortunately, the injuries to Billy Jones and Vergini shows just how bare our defensive options are, with no defenders available on the bench, meaning further reinforcements are definitely needed before the window shuts.
As well as that, the performance of Roberge looked like costing Sunderland at times, with him failing to handle Anichebe throughout. van Aanholt’s inability to track Berahino’s run, and the space Dorrans was given in the build-up, gives Poyet plenty to work on, and work which needs to be done quickly. Rodwell will need time to rediscover his sharpness, while Johnson’s ineffective performance also needs looking at. At the end of the day however, it’s a point which we didn’t look like getting following Albion’s second, despite taking an early lead through a Cattermole stunner.