So the International break gave the manager and the players a rest from competitive football and an opportunity to get some work done out on the training ground.
I would imagine that there would have been quite a bit of fitness work done the first few days with plenty of match shadow play in the latter stages of the fortnight off. Unfortunately the way that the team was set up against Preston didn’t fill me with any confidence that such work had been done.
I say this because I am pretty sure that anyone who was at the game was as disillusioned with the first 45 minutes as I was. The formation just didn’t work and playing one striker up front in Atdhe Nuhiu left him completely isolated and we were extremely lucky to go in at 0-0.
Lucas Joao was introduced at half time to resort back to a more attacking formation and wow wasn’t the impact immediate? Nuhiu scored the first and then a sublime pass from the returning, and much-missed Barry Bannan picked out a fabulous run by Joao to loop a header over the keeper to go two up in only a few minutes. Not only do I think the change of formation was critical but Joao’s willingness to run, sometimes in behind the opposition's back four changed the game dramatically.
Defenders hate running back towards their own goal, they like the game to be played in front of them and when you come up against a striker full of confidence and running like Joao is right now you know that the afternoon is going to be a real test.
Although Preston came back in to the game the fact that we had gone a couple of goals in front gave us something to hang on and dig in for and I was pleased to see us do this. On too many occasions this year we have looked a bit of a soft touch but we defended resolutely and rode our luck when it got to 2-1 and they hit the post. The thing is though; sometimes I think you make your own luck in this game. When you are willing to throw yourself in front of whatever’s coming your way you might get that vital deflection or block. This can’t be underestimated because I really do believe that earlier in the season we wouldn’t have ended up winning that game.
When the assistant referee held up the board for seven minutes of injury time you could hear the groans and moans around you. Alas, there was no need to worry. Atdhe Nuhiu scored a most ridiculous, yet ridiculously good third and then when Forestieri curled a free kick in for number four the place was like the Hillsborough of the past two seasons. One thing that I did notice was the togetherness of the players after the second goal. Everyone celebrated together and there was a bit of that feel good factor back.
As I left the ground I remarked to a friend of mine how amazing football is in that we have had such a really poor season and yet 45 minutes like that can literally make you nearly forget all about it ... amazing!
Onwards and upwards and Sunderland away should have been a game that we should be approaching with a new-found confidence. The fact that hey had stuffed Derby 4-1 gave it a bit more of an edge and I was delighted that Joao and Nuhiu were starting up front. The game was somewhat affected by the windy and wet conditions but I thought we adapted well and created two or three very good opportunities in the first half. It was the final ball that let us down and we worked hard in midfield and defended well.
Jordan Thorniley came in after only a few minutes for the injured Fox who looked like he’d done a hamstring. There really has to be some inquest into the lack of fitness of the whole squad over the past two seasons. I can not believe that you can sustain so many injuries and especially muscle injuries as we have. If I am honest, with the sports science available this day and age there really should be no reason for it to happen, but I digress, lets get back to the most enjoyable aspect, eh? Winning football matches.
Yet again we turned on a much more positive performance in the second half and the only negative I have is that we concede immediately after scoring the first and were lucky to not do it again after we scored the second. I thought we were always the better team, we looked like we could always find another gear and if our final pass or cross hit the spot we could break a shaky Sunderland defence down.
Both Joao and Nuhui scored again and you can see the confidence in the front pair. They work well together and look a real handful at times. I’d like to see big Atdhe play more centrally, a bit like he did at Leeds. I’d ask him to play between the two penalty areas, I wouldn’t want him out wide at all. He carries a real threat especially with Joao spinning off him and working the channels.
A couple of weeks ago I had written that the players should take it upon themselves to try and finish this season on a more positive level. Three wins on the spin has certainly started that trend and it would be great to go into the close season with some optimism rather than the negativity that we have had for nearly all of the season.
A massive test against Fulham this coming Saturday, they are flying and it will be a real challenge for us but who’s to say we can’t improve again? The confidence should now be returning, the camaraderie is there for us all to see, an other positive performance and result will go a long long way.