Sunderland 1 Wigan Athletic 2: Luck turns

We asked — we begged and pleaded — for a bit of luck, and finally we have received. After weeks upon weeks of dodgy refereeing, ill-timed injuries, missed penalties, Victor Moses’ personal mission to hit the post but not score, we finally caught a break, and won a match we probably did not deserve to win.

Quite how you can play as well as Latics did away at Newcastle and lose, and then beat Sunderland as we did on Sunday, I’m not sure. Roberto tends to praise his team’s performance when results go the wrong way. This was the opposite, a decidedly average if resolute performance, but an excellent result.

Latics started like wounded dogs — after the morale crushing finale against Blackburn a week prior — and it was no surprise when Sebastian Larsson put Sunderland ahead after 8 minutes. Ali Al-Habsi made a rare mistake, spilling from Nicklas Bendtner’s optimistic shot. The Omani keeper’s subsequent block fell to the Swede, a bright light in Sunderland’s poor campaign, and he made no mistake.

Al-Habsi redeemed himself with a string of excellent saves before Ronnie Stam skied Latics’ first half-chance at the other end. It was the Dutchman’s dangerous cross minutes later, however, that led to the equaliser. Conor Sammon was a foot from connecting inside the penalty area, but when he missed Victor Moses was ready at the far post, collecting, spinning into the box and drawing a foul from Sunderland’s goalscorer. Larsson might have been better off letting the winger shoot, but having witnessed Ben Watson’s two most recent penalty efforts perhaps felt it was a gamble worth taking. Referee Kevin Friend pointed to the spot and the Latics faithful breathed a sigh of relief as Jordi Gomez confidently sent the keeper the wrong way to equalize just before the half.

The second half was not one for the neutral, but Latics did look determined. Gary Caldwell in particular made a few key defensive clearances while Al-Habsi continued to make up for his early error. Conor Sammon broke excitingly from midfield before running out of ideas and being muscled off the ball in one of Latics’ more exciting counter attacks. Sunderland did some aerial bombarding, but it was all predictable and Latics three centre-halves coped with what was thrown at them. It all looked set for a bore draw when James McArthur, on for Ronnie Stam, pounced on a poor touch from Wes Brown, squaring for Franco Di Santo to tap in. A costly defensive mistake from the Sunderland perspective, a reward for a determined performance for the Latics.

Roberto spoke after the match about the healthy competition for places in the squad — the goal was a result of the energy and drive of his two substitutes. It does say a lot that Ben Watson and Hugo Rodallega — two of the first names on the teamsheet a month ago, and last season — were unused substitutes. Martinez stuck to his new tactical system, with Ronnie Stam and David Jones operating as wing-backs on the right and left respectively, ahead of the trio of centre-backs Caldwell, Figueroa and Gohouri. It will be interesting to see if he keeps faith in the system that has yielded four points from six (which would have been six from six but for the inexplicable refereeing against Blackburn) once Antolin Alcaraz and Emmerson Boyce return from suspension and injury respectively. A central three of Caldwell, Alcaraz and Boyce, or Caldwell, Alcaraz and Figueroa, is promising. And I wouldn’t mind seeing Patrick Van Aanholt, so dangerous against Everton in an attacking left-back role, at left wing-back.

The midfield was quiet, although James McCarthy did win the battle against Lee Cattermole, who was substituted for David Vaughn after an ineffectual match. The young Irishman/Scot is solid enough in that deep role, but you do feel his true potential lies in a more attacking role. Mohammed Diame was subdued, while Jordi Gomez is much less effective when the team does not control possession (although thank goodness he was there to take the penalty — who else could be trusted with it?). Victor Moses won the penalty and broke with pace on a few occasions, but didn’t have a shot on target that I can remember. Conor Sammon toiled but didn’t have much to work with.

But three points are three points. What happened here is what typically happens the other way around. Steve Bruce was naive to leave one man at the back as Sunderland chased three points, and our substitutes pounced. Wigan has now leapfrogged Blackburn in the table, and despite the terrifying fixture list ahead there is cause for optimism. Five goals in two matches, a new tactical system that seems to be working, and a squad in which every player is replaceable. Arsenal play Manchester City in the Carling Cup tonight, and with Wenger talking up the need to rest Van Persie and Walcott, opportunity knocks.

A Neutral Would Say

Wigan were a bit lucky to emerge with three points, but Sunderland were sloppy.

Player Ratings

Al Al-Habsi: 7.5 —  Made a mistake on the goal but kept Latics in the game with some excellent saves.

Steve Gohouri: 6 — Doesn’t inspire confidence, but wasn’t at fault for the goal and otherwise kept Sunderland out.

Gary Caldwell: 6.5 — The best of the three central defenders, he made some important clearances. We may see his best football with this new system.

Maynor Figueroa: 6 — Out of position in the first half when Phil Bardsley skied what should have been Sunderland’s second goal. But kept them out thereafter.

Ronnie Stam: 6.5 — Didn’t get forward enough, but was involved in Latics’ best attacking forays when he did.

David Jones: 5.5 — A bit quiet in this one.

Mo Diame: 6 — Also quiet. Shouldn’t be taking free-kicks.

James McCarthy: 6 — Lots of tackling and simple passing, won the battle with Cattermole. But gave the ball away once or twice a bit dangerously.

Jordi Gomez: 6 — Will thrive in this system when Latics dominate possession, but doesn’t have the pace to be effective when counter-attacking. Surprising that he wasn’t replaced by Crusat.

Victor Moses: 7 — Won the penalty, and caused problems with his dribbling as always. Probably earned Sunderland a collective 4 yellow cards.

Conor Sammon: 6 — Worked hard and made one barn-storming run from midfield, but lacks the dribbling and culture of Franco Di Santo. Still, his and Moses’ pace made the Sunderland defense work.

Subs:

James McArthur: 7 — Came on for Ronnie Stam, a defensive substitution when the match was crying out for a quicker option like Albert Crusat. But it was his sheer determination to win the loose ball from Wes Brown that led to the winner. Also kept his cool to square to Di Santo when he could have easily gone for glory and missed. Tempting to say that if it had been the other way around, Franco would have shot!

Franco Di Santo: 7 — His work-rate is very good, and he’s excellent with the ball at his feet. It was his harassing of Kieran Westwood that led to Wes Brown’s poor touch. Big questions about his finishing remain, but he got the winner this time. Pleased for him.

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