|Sunderland 1 v 0 Leeds United
Tuesday, 12th December 2023 Kick-off 20:00
Leeds lacking creativity as we go down to stubborn Sunderland
Wednesday, 13th Dec 2023 21:29 by Tim Whelan
Leeds lacking creativity as we go down to stubborn Sunderland
It's the curse of teams beginning with S who play in red and white stripes. Southampton, Stoke City and now Sunderland. We can only be thankful that Sheffield United aren't in our division this season.
This game was the reverse of the trip to Blackburn on Saturday, where the opposition had slightly more of the possession but we carried the greater threat. This time we did most of the attacking against a side who were content to sit very deep for a home team, but for most of the game they were the ones to create the better chances.
There was one enforced change to make to the starting line-up, with Byram’s hamstring likely to keep him out for the next couple of weeks. So Djed Spence was finally able to get a start after his own injury spell, but would have to operate at left-back instead of his usual right. And Bamford had recovered from illness in time to take his place on the bench.
Leeds made a bright start, and came as close to scoring from a free kick as we have done all season. It was to the left of the box and from a fairly tight angle, but even then Summerville tried to catch Patterson out with a shot. And it would have worked if he’d hit it with a bit more power, but the Sunderland keeper just had time to reach up to the top corner of his goal to claw the ball away.
Up to the mid-point of the half we were having the better of the contest, but then Sunderland created a couple of good chances in quick succession. As a free kick was swung into a crowded area it deflected off Rodon, forcing Meslier to react quickly to prevent an own goal, and Struijk somehow managed to knock the ball away before any of the forwards could turn the rebound into the net.
Seelt got to the resulting corner but Meslier produced an excellent save to keep his header out, reaching behind him at full stretch to turn the ball to safety with his fingertips. There was also a moment when the younger Bellingham was allowed far too much space at another corner, but thankfully he directed his header just wide of the post.
The momentum was now with Sunderland, and our old boy Jack Clarke was starting to give Archie Gray a torrid time. With Clarke being their biggest threat I thought we ought to swap the full-backs and let the more experienced Spence chase him, especially when Gray got booked for a slightly late tackle. At that point I feared the worst, but somehow young Archie managed to get through the rest of the 90 minutes without picking up the dreaded second yellow.
But he did need to stay on his feet, and his reluctance to tackle played it’s part in Clarke being able to cut inside for a shot that curled just past the far post just before the break. And early in the second half another ex-Leeds player tried his luck, as Niall Huggins sent a fierce shot a bit too close to Meslier. Huggins can join Leif Davis on my list of Championship left-backs we shouldn’t have sold, as they would now be very handy.
The next Sunderland attack ended when Kamara header clear and set Summerville racing into their half. Daniel Farke was later to suggest that if Summerville had gone down when Clarke tried to stop him our former player could have been in trouble for the professional foul, but Cree kept going. Yet he’d lost a bit of momentum and had to take the shot early while defenders got back to him, so in the end it lacked the power to trouble Patterson.
With 15 minutes left Farke made the first of his changes to freshen up his attack, with Anthony and Gnonto coming on for James and Rutter, and Summerville moving to a more central role. Sunderland had been dropping deep for quite a while now, which had at least reduced the threat of Jack Clarke, as his defensive duties prevented him from tormenting Gray as he had in the first half.
But their positional change had also allowed Bellingham junior to move up front, and he was on hand to score the only goal in the 78th minute. Strujk wasn’t able to get much power to a clearing header which had come to him at an awkward height, and the ball was played back to find Bellingham in space with Gray playing him onside. Bellingham had time to pick his spot and duly guided the ball past Meslier to put the Wearsiders one up.
With a lead to protect the home side went even further into their shell, leaving us to mostly pass the ball around in a big semi-circle from the two corners via the middle of their half, probing and looking for an opening that never came. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and it was time to go double-bleached blond up front as Joseph and Bamford came on for Kamara and the tiring Spence.
And yet it was Piroe who produced our best chance of the closing stages, turning in the six yard box to stab a ball goalwards that for once had Patterson beaten, only for a defender to be on hand to clear off the line. Apart from that moment their defensive discipline held firm, and the five minutes of added time weren’t enough for us to be able to force an equaliser.
So it’s another disappointing result on the road, but it was a bit inconsiderate of Sunderland to sack Tony Mowbray when we were playing them in two matches time, as we were unlucky to meet them on a night when they were all working hard to impress their caretaker boss Mike Dodds. Who might be in with a shout of getting the job on a permanent basis after the tactical acumen he displayed during this game.
Daniel Farke was full of his opposite number after the game, though he didn’t think we’d done a lot wrong apart from lacking a bit of our usual fluency. "First of all congratulations to Sunderland to a great defensive effort. I think in general I'm struggling a bit to criticise my lads too much. It was clear we had a difficult away game”.
“I think we dominated it in many periods, we had nearly 60% of possession in the first half, more than 70% in the second. We didn't find the cutting edge. In recent games we've created so many chances and scored so many goals. Today when it came to play the final pass we were not tidy enough or sharp enough”.
"They changed their formation to a 5-3-2 and even their strikers had to defend the wings. They tried to park the bus and counter-attack and (take advantage of) set pieces. Whenever we shot, they had bodies to block, they defended with their life. It was just one of those days when you did not find the tidiness or sharpness to be there with a chance. We did not score."
Had we managed to get the first goal it would probably have been a different story, but this was yet more evidence that while our strike force is often deadly when we can catch teams on the break, we can also struggle to break sides down when they are content to defend very deep. And this inconsistency away from home is proving costly when the top two continue to set a blistering pace.
Unfortunately Ipswich came from behind to win at Watford, which has left us a full ten points shy of the automatic promotion slots. Daniel Farke says he doesn’t look at the league table until 40 games have been played, but unless they start to slip quite soon we could well be condemned to the play-offs by the time we get to that stage of the season.
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