As a masterclass in how to stop Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland’s performance proved near faultless but, textbook as David Moyes’s spoiling tactics undoubtedly were, the upshot was mutual frustration.
If Mauricio Pochettino could barely disguise his disappointment at a draw which leaves his Tottenham Hotspur side a receding title threat in Chelsea’s rear view mirror, the Wearsiders really need wins if they are to stand a realistic chance of staying in the Premier League. While Pochettino’s second placed players remain nine points behind the leaders, second bottom Sunderland are five adrift of fourth bottom.
At least the latter’s enthusiasm for getting in their guests’ faces before delighting in forcing them down repeated dead attacking ends offers a semblance of hope at the end of an evening when Spurs looked badly in need of some winter sun.
“I’m a bit disappointed but I don’t believe we were tired,” said Pochettino. “We should have won. It was a massive opportunity to close the gap on Chelsea.” In contrast Moyes grasped all available positives. “The players should take a lot of pride from their performance,” he said. “They stuck at it defensively against a really good team with some of Britain’s finest young talents.”
It helped his cause that he had Lamine Koné and Didier Ndong back from Africa Cup of Nations duty and both did well. If Ndong’s energy blunted Spurs’ midfield edge, Koné quickly proved his worth, the central defender making a fine block to prevent Son Heung-min connecting with Harry Kane’s dangerous early cross.
Sunderland’s manager is not really a fan of back threes but, lacking a specialist left back in the wake of Patrick van Aanholt’s defection to Crystal Palace, he opted for a 3-5-2 formation, featuring Billy Jones and Javier Manquillo as wing backs.
Well, that was the theory: in reality they rapidly retreated into back five mode as Michel Vorm, deputising for the unwell Hugo Lloris in the visiting goal, struggled to keep warm on a damp, raw Wearside night.
When Vorm finally had a routine Fabio Borini shot to save, its tameness perhaps highlighted precisely why Moyes was so disappointed to have failed in concerted attempts to buy a new attacking partner for the isolated Spurs old boy, Jermain Defoe. “It wasn’t for want of trying,” said the Scot. “We knew it was going to be a difficult window.”
If Moyes feared Vito Mannone was in for a difficult evening, the goalkeeper confounded him, setting the tone by pushing Victor Wanyama’s 20-yard shot round a post before Sunderland benefited from some refereeing leniency.
Just as Mousa Dembélé appeared to have finally deconstructed that packed, bloody minded, defence he was sent crashing to earth courtesy of a late, high and thoroughly reckless tackle from Jack Rodwell. Lee Mason promptly showed the midfielder a yellow card but there was a fairly compelling argument that it should have been red.
Instead the challenge’s blood curdling nature galvanised the crowd and as, suddenly, Sunderland poured forward, Ben Davies – on for Danny Rose who had injured a knee – sliced a clearance into the path of Jones whose cross for Defoe might have prefaced a goal had Toby Alderweireld not intercepted.
At the outset of the second half, Borini did escape on the counterattack, only to end up ballooning his eventual shot over Vorm’s bar. All industry and minimal incision or real invention, that little cameo appeared emblematic of the attacking side of a Sunderland side let down by awful set piece execution.
Spurs though were pretty low on their customary improvisation too. So low, that shivering in the technical area, Pochettino cut an increasingly frustrated figure as he watched Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and company persistently run into attacking cul-de-sacs.
When Ndong hacked Alli down the visitors won a free-kick in classic Eriksen territory and his subtly curving delivery did not disappoint. Fortunately for Moyes, Mannone proved equal to it, saving well to prevent the ball squeezing inside a post before, subsequently, diving low to keep a subsequent Son effort out.
Turning creator, Son seized the fall out from a partially cleared corner and crossed superbly. The unmarked Wanyama should have headed Tottenham’s best chance home but, instead, the midfielder lost balance as he leapt and the ball arced over Mannone’s bar, leaving Pochettino muttering furiously to himself.
“The team spirit was tremendous,” said Moyes. “The togetherness of the players gives us something to build on. We need to keep making as many tackles as we made tonight.”TG