Sunderland’s trip to the Etihad Stadium on Saturday afternoon was not very rewarding. Aleksandar Kolarov contributed a goal and an assist as Manchester City dominated the match, earning a 3-0 victory over the visiting Black Cats.
The hosts made a host of changes to their lineup from their midweek draw to Borussia Dortmund. The team assumed a 4-2-3-1 shape, but with two forwards in the team. Carlos Tevez played at the front, but Mario Balotelli came in to play as an attacker cutting in from the left. Gareth Barry came back into the side playing in his familiar role as a ball winner in front of the defense.
Martin O’Neill fielded a hybrid 4-4-1-1 formation. The one real shift tactically from the base formation was having James McClean play advanced on the left side, nearly level with attacking midfielder Stephane Sessegnon. Perhaps this was to attempt to keep Kolarov honest in the defensive phase of the game. Steven Fletcher was the lone forward up front.
Sunderland has been quite effective on the road at playing a tight game, not allowing much from their opponents. The early season match at the Emirates where they held Arsenal to a scoreless draw was likely O’Neill’s goal for this match as well. Yet the Blues took a nil-nil out of play on a free-kick after a silly challenge just outside Stefan Mignolet’s area by former Villa defender Carlos Cuellar in the 3rd minute. Kolarov lined up the free kick and blasted it around the wall past Mignolet’s right post for a 5th minute 1-0 lead.
Even after City went up a goal, Sunderland looked afraid to plow on, instead willing to play a defensive tactic with two banks of four trying to hold onto a single goal deficit. The story for Manchester City was Balotelli’s inclusion, and his somewhat mixed performance. He was constantly harangued by Brett Gardner on the left side of the City attack. With Tevez, Sergio Aguero, and Edin Dzeko ahead of him as forwards, Roberto Mancini was clearly trying to find a way to utilize the maligned Italian striker.
The attack for the Blues resided mostly on the right, though. If it did come down their left side, Kolarov was the player to provide any width. Balotelli would move inside and be that second attacker down the middle when Kolarov was able to get forward. With Sunderland’s tendency to side towards defense rather than attack, this was often.
As the game restarted at 1-0 after the half, Sunderland was certainly more willing to equalize. Adam Johnson got more involved down the right side, though he and McClean would often swap wings to modulate the attack. They were able to generate some chances, mostly through Johnson down the right, but their best chance may have been through a Fletcher head chance off an early cross from Seb Larsson – and that was offside.
The second goal came right after Balotelli was brought off for Aguero. It wasn’t an impressive run out for the Italian, but his inconsistency is well-noted, and in a match like this could be easily forgotten. The second goal also involved Kolarov, when he delivered a beautiful cross to the near post just before the hour mark. Aguero provided the perfect volley strike, a laser shot that Mignolet had no chance to thwart.
The remainder of the match was a bit of a chess match – O’Neill brought on Louis Saha and Fraizer Campbell to try and find their way back in, but the attacking options brought on meant defensively they were less able to win the ball back from City. The Blues were more than willing to play possession and ride out the match to a dominant victory, but a late goal was nabbed on another set piece – and again Kolarov had a hand in it. Kolarov got into the clear, was brought down by Gardner just outside the area on Sunderland’s right side. James Milner’s bender from right to left got a slight deflection of a Black Cat player and eluded Mignolet to seal the 3-0 victory.
O’Neill probably had the right idea to play pragmatically for a draw, but when you prepare for defending, it often seems difficult to come out of the shell and get after things. It is abundantly clear that even after purchasing Fletcher from Wolves and Saha from Tottenham, Sunderland still lacks a true attacking threat. Until they can get that sorted out, a draw is likely the best they can hope for in these road matches against better sides.