Part one, covering pre-season, is here.
Our pre-season friendlies went well. I won’t cover them in too much detail, as they’re only really for the players to get their fitness levels up and get used to my tactics (and each other). I don’t think friendly results matter, but still it was nice to go unbeaten. Of course, we didn’t play anyone good. Our own U-23 side, Darlington and a hodge-podge of no-mark German and Dutch sides provided willing opposition.
The first competitive game of the season was due to be a real test, though. The fixture computer had paired us against Antonio Conte’s Chelsea at home to kick off the 2016/17 Premier League season.
I went with a 3-5-2 that had worked so well in my truncated Le Havre save. With Papy Djilobodji insured, I had a decision to make at the back. In pretty much a straight shoot-out between Jan Kirkhoff and Paddy McNair, I plumped for the Northern Irishman. No good saying I want to blood youth if I don’t give them a chance when an opening comes up, is it? The German was on the bench though, with John O’Shea as extra insurance.
I hoped Ndong and Jack Rodwell would form a hard-working, tireless duo in the middle, with Wahbi Khazri providing the creative spark. He would also be joined by Januzaj, dropping deep, with Defoe staying high up and (hopefully) finishing off any moves.
Given that this is Conte’s Chelsea, they also lined up with three at the back. It would be an interesting test…
Sunderland 1-2 Chelsea
A huge part of football’s enduring charm is the element of surprise. Just because a team has better players and more money does not always mean they will win. Sometimes hard work, a well-executed tactical plan or plain luck (or a combination of all three) can see Goliaths slayed by Davids. It’s why Leicester City won the 2015/16 Premier League title at 5000-1 odds. It’s why Greece surprised everyone at Euro 2004. It’s why the FA Cup remains so beloved, with giant-killings a relatively frequent occurance.
But of course, there’s the flip side. The flip side that, actually, the bigger, better and more expensively-assembled teams win most of the time. It’s why Leicester won’t retain their title. It’s why Greece have never come close to winning anything since the heady days of 2004. It’s why non-league sides may bloody the noses of the big boys but will never actually lift the trophy.
This game was one of those games. We dominated. Ndong and Rodwell were terriers in midfield, harrying and tackling and genuinely being a nuisance. In front of them, Khazri was a mercurial presence, and Januzaj caused consternation in his marker John Terry but dropping deep and drifting into pockets of space. And yet, it wasn’t enough.
Despite having 21 shots, we failed to carve out a clear-cut opportunity. Chelsea did, and they scored them. The first was a soft penalty early on. We failed to clear a David Luiz long throw and after a melee the ball fell to Cesar Azpilacueta just inside the box. Unsure what to do, he turned his back looking to find a teammate behind him to retain possession. It was not a huge threat, but Jason Denayer decided to come clattering in from behind. The challenge didn’t even knock the Spaniard off his feet, but it was enough for the referee to point to the spot. Unsurprisngly, Eden Hazard dispatched it for 1-0.
Only 18 minutes had gone, and I was concerned that we might have a massacre on our hands. But the players surprised me. Instead of folding like a house of cards as I expected, they fought back and wrestled a foothold into the game. Unfortunately, our chances and half-chances found their equal in Thibault Courtois, who was a constant thorn in Jermain Defoe’s side. As the game dragged on, I suspected we would pay for our profligacy. I was right. In the 68th minute Eden Hazard jerked back into life. Taking the ball into the final third on a couter attack he skipped past a sliding Svensson and then bamboozled Lamine Kone before pulling the ball back to the waiting – unmarked – Diego Costa, who couldn’t miss.
We did get a goal back a couple of minutes later when Khazri lashed a shot into the top corner from the edge of the box, but despite going attacking and bringing on Kevin Lasagna and Duncan Watmore, we couldn’t get the equaliser.
Still, it was a decent performance, and something to build on. Although, I did learn after the match that Duncan Watmore was just one more league appearance away from having his wages bumped up to £30k per week. The youngster was already earning too much (£20k p/w) given his lower-level-of-the-Championship stats. If he featured again or not (likely not) I decided I would probably look to offload him in the summer, if not before.
Up next we had Burnley, away. It’s a game that would perhaps be a truer reflection of the standard of the squad. We were always likely to lose to Chelsea, but Burnley? I am expecting them to be battling relegation with us this season. Win, and all looks rosy. Lose, and I would worry.
I saw no reason to change the side that performed so well against Chelsea. In any case, the only change I might have seriously considered was denied me – Djilobodji was still injured, so McNair continued despite not yet being totally comfortable at centre back.
Burnley 0-2 Sunderland
Despite my pre-match worries, this was a simple, comfortable win. Jermain Defoe got us off to a good start, finishing inside the near post after a Januzaj through ball. The game then settled into a pattern – we played some nice passing moves but mostly fluffed our lines when faced with Tom Heaton, while Burnley’s ever-more-desperate hoofs down the middle were meat and drink for Jason Denayer, who made up for his Chelsea faux pas with a Man of the Match performance. The only dark cloud was the injury that forced Defoe off in the 38th minute. In his stead I brought on Joel Asoro, a pacy 17-year-old Swede plucked from the reserves. I had already arranged for Defoe to tutor him, and the lessons seemed to be paying off. In the 90th minute Asoro finished off a slick counter-attacking move with the kind of dead-eyed accuracy that had made his tutor’s name.
The only dark cloud was the Defoe injury – confirmed after the game to be a hip injury that would keep him out for at least 2 months.
Still, I had no real time to worry about it. We were facing Sheffield United in the EFL Cup just 3 days after the Burnley game.
In an ideal world, I would play my strongest side in both domestic cups. But this is not an ideal world. With injuries, and a short turn around time between games, I was forced to ring the chances for the match. In fact, the only player to remain in the side was Paddy McNair. Debut were given to sub ‘keeper Mika, Javier Manquillo, Jannes Horn, Victor Anichebe, Diego Poyet and Steven Pienaar, while Kirkhoff, O’Shea, youngster Lynden Gooch all came in, and Kevin Lasagna made his first start.
Sunderland 2-0 Sheffield United
With such a chopped-and-changed side (10 in all from the Burnley game) it would have been no surprise to me if we would have lost, but instead we were quite comfortable. A Pienaar long rage shot set us on our way, before Lasagna scored a scrappy goal to seal the game before half time. The visitors barely threatened, and Pienaar, Lasagna and Diego Poyet all impressed me. The latter could have scored late on after a lung-bursting run into the box, but hit the post when one on one.
Our final game in the month of August was against Watford, at home. Their squad looked a bit stronger than Burnley’s, but I didn’t think this team was any great shakes. Despite impressive performances from some of my second string in the cup, I went back to the tried and tested side that had beaten Burnely so comfortably in the last league outing – except of course, Defoe was injured, so I plumped for Lasagna in his place. I did make one other slight tweak, switching Januzaj from a False 9 to a Deep Lying Forward. Following impressive performances against Sheffield United, Poyet and Pienaar made their way on to the bench.
Sunderland 0-2 Watford
I don’t know what happened. An impressive performance in defeat against Chelsea was followed by two comfortable wins. And then this. An insipid performance in which we rarely threatened and could have lost by more. We got into the half time break somehow at 0-0, but it didn’t last long. On loan Chelsea man Kenedy smashed an outrageous 30-yard volley into the top corner. It was 1-0, and we didn’t look like scoring. Januzaj, so often a creative force, kept dribbling into defenders and falling over. Khazri barely looked interested. Lasagna, isolated. Troy Deeney sealed the win in the 72nd minute with a snapshot from the edge of the box. After all the optimism of the last two games, I felt like a Sunderland manager again.
September would be a tricky month. We would face potential relegation rivals Hull City and Swansea, as well as West Ham twice (in the league and the next round of the ELF Cup). By the end of the next month, I should have a much clearer idea of whether it will be a struggle to death or a comfortable lower-mid-table finish. I know which one I’m hoping for, and I certainly know which one I’m expecting.