One year ago here in the Midatlantic United States, we had a rather unwelcome storm system come through and dump a couple of feet of the white stuff on the ground. The same thing has happened this year for much of England, and most of the matches scheduled for today were cancelled, as well as the huge Chelsea/Manchester United fixture that was set for tomorrow. Fortunately for ESPN, Sunderland was left relatively untouched, and their match with Bolton Wanderers proceeded without a hitch.
The Black Cats have edged towards the top of the table, and were only two points behind Bolton. Both teams began the match in standard 4-4-2 alignments. The bulk of Sunderland’s attack consisted of their two forwards, Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan, as well as forward runs from wing midfielders Danny Welbeck and Jordan Henderson. The Trotters played with more of a flat midfield, most of the offensive prowess was displayed by forwards Kevin Davies and Johan Elmander. Matthew Taylor provided some support from the left wing, but much of their game centered around long pass attempts to the heads of the forwards, principally Kevin Davies.
The match contained a lot of physicality. Both teams were closing down a lot on their marks, especially through the midfield. Sunderland manager Steve Bruce was forced to spend a substitute early on to replace center half John Mensah, whose ankle was injured in the 14th minute after a hard tackle from Kevin Davies. Bruce brought on Egyptian Ahmad Al-Muhammadi to play right back and pushed Nedum Onuoha to right center back.
Throughout the first half, Sunderland seemed to play with more urgency when it came to the attack. The first opportunity did go to Bolton in the 9th minute, as Taylor made a run on Onuoha. He was able to keep the ball in play and center a pass to Davies, whose hard shot was blocked down by the defense and the threat removed.
In the 32nd minute, a brilliant move by Sunderland’s primary goalscorer set up the go-ahead tally. Henderson gathered the ball just outside the penalty area, and lofted a cross in towards Darren Bent. Bent’s left foot emerged to control the pass, and he then took a shot which was parried away by goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen. The rebound glanced to the center of the area, and Welbeck dove to head the ball past two sets of legs and into the net.
Bolton came closest to scoring as stoppage time approached. A Taylor corner connected with center back Gary Cahill. He headed the ball to his defensive partner Zat Knight. Knight’s shot from six feet was destined for the goal, but keeper Craig Gordon made a reflex save and the ball directed over the crossbar.
There weren’t any halftime adjustments, but as the second half progressed, Bolton manager Owen Coyle brought on another forward to help in the attack. In the 63rd minute, he brought on Ivan Klasnic for right midfielder Martin Petrov. Coyle did not make a formational adjustment, instead he moved Elmander to play in the right midfield role. This seemed a bit of a surprise, because they could have moved to a more aggressive 4-3-3 formation after bringing on a third forward. Perhaps the excellent play of Welbeck throughout the match left Coyle little choice but to stick to a more defensive tactic. But there were a few chances after the substitution where Elmander did not attack into the area like he would if he were playing forward.
In the final fifteen minutes, Bolton did create opportunities to level the match. Shots by Cahill and Klasnic were taken from dangerous areas, but the Sunderland defense was effective in clogging the area with bodies and making it difficult for Bolton to put quality shots on net. The game ended with the Black Cats emerging 1-0 winners, and effectively supplanted Bolton from 6th place in the table.
The Trotters seemed anemic through much of this match. With Mensah going down early in the match, and Bruce having to rely upon a converted midfielder to mark the speedy Matthew Taylor, it seems surprising that Bolton would only manage two shots on goal after that injury. The makeshift Sunderland defense played a huge role in keeping a clean sheet for Gordon. As can be shown by this chalkboard, Anton Ferdinand was especially active in the backfield.
The Trotters have now lost two of three, both losses coming away to teams in the top half of the table. While this loss isn’t devastating to Bolton, it was a match where several players looked disinterested. Kevin Davies was not the aerial force he needs to be for Bolton to be successful. Elmander wasn’t sharp, either. Taylor disappeared after the first 20 minutes. For Bolton to remain in the hunt for Europe, they’re going to have to maintain their edge mentally and not let down like they did today.