Three widemen offer Sunderland promise
It was polarising contributions of brilliance and ineptitude from Sunderland and West Ham respectively that saw the Wearsiders run out comfortable 3-0 victors on Saturday, and the home side had three widemen to thank for their goals on what was an impressive display at the Stadium of Light.
Patience being a virtue is never more true than in North East football. Whether it be enduring a barren trophy spell, or in Sunderland's case a poor start to the season that saw just two wins in their first thirteen, tolerance towards your football club is a necessity. On Saturday that patience was further rewarded, following their recent scalp of Manchester City.
For Hammers boss Sam Allardyce, the chance to return to the club he called home for a season in the early 1980s and secure victory was lost. Although his side went down by three goals, he was also doing his best to dispel a commonly held myth. Oft associated with the long, unattractive style he fashioned in the North West at Bolton Wanderers, his current project operates on a far more evolved set of values.
Consistently playing it on the deck, attempting to shuffle the ball with neat interchanges, Allardyce has moved with the times while also staying true to his heritage.
With the returning Joe Cole seen as the creative fulcrum, his occasionally dangerous crossing provided a flickering highlight on what was a bleak day for West Ham, embodied by the fact Allardyce preferred the warmth of his dugout over the howling sea winds of Wearside.
Just as West Ham were poor, Sunderland were impressive. Energetic and unwilling to let their opponents settle, they streamed forward with enthusiasm when the right situation presented itself. Good early momentum crescendoed when Sebastian Larsson crashed in a sweet left foot drive just after the ten minute mark. And from that point on it only ever looked like being a home win.
Still adopting the counter-attacking style synonymous with Martin O'Neill's time at Sunderland, the first real display of fluency among the forward line represented a potential watershed moment for the club. Costing just over £30 million to assemble, that understanding has been absent for large parts of the season with the meagre goal return in the opening months salvaged by the impressive early form of Steven Fletcher.
Dubbed as 'Mighty Man' by O'Neill after the game, credit must also go to David Vaughan. At 5' 7", and pitched against the imposing Alou Diarra, the former Blackpool man not only out-fought his more cultured opponent but displayed composure throughout. His impressive performance and quick recycling of possession also aided his side in the attacking third. A marginalized character for much of his Black Cats career, on Saturday he gave credence to those who believe he was the unsung hero of Blackpool's brief flirtation with the Premier League.
Keen to keep things tight after half-time, West Ham's plan failed spectacularly just two minutes into the second period. While the first goal was unstoppable, the second most certainly was. Ever the diplomat, Allardyce's analysis was blunt. "Just look at it, pathetic wasn't it?" He rhetorically asked. "We have a free-kick and we let the opposition score. Jussi gets us out of it by making a save, we mess up the clearance and let Johnson score."
Describing this as the worst performance of the season, his side's shyness in front of goal away from Upton Park also remains a concern along with a growing list of defensive injuries - James Collins the latest victim. With Mohamed Diame returning to the bench, there appears a silver lining for the club - his driving runs and athleticism were sorely missed on a day like this. Hobbling off before half-time, Collins' replacement James Tomkins began well, but as the game became more ragged so did West Ham's defence.
A James McClean strike mid-way through the second half killed any hope West Ham held of perhaps mounting a comeback. Containing a fortuitous element when Sessegnon's shot trickled into McClean's path, it was the kind of serendipity that is often found when sides show attacking intent and take risks.
Consequently that same luck was never likely to surface for West Ham. Describing their performance as "staggering", the lack of consistency was the biggest bone of contention for Allardyce. "The level of difference to that performance is staggering. Last week we were absolutely brilliant in all departments, this week we were poor in all departments," he said.
Now closer to the top ten rather than the bottom three, Saturday's result has seen the same kind of New Year pickup that O'Neill enjoyed in the early throes of his Sunderland career. Meanwhile for West Ham, they will be hoping the return of players like Andy Carroll and the aforementioned Diame can end the faltering form that plagued the second quarter of their season.