Jose Fonte’s 88th minute equalizer denied Sunderland their first win of the season, in a thrilling match at St. Mary’s stadium.
The two sides that flirted with relegation last season were keen on bolstering their squad, by adding a few marquee signings to their roster, this summer. Mauricio Pochettino acquired the likes of Victor Wanyama and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, while Paolo Di Canio snagged Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini.
After suffering a heart-wrenching opening day loss to Fulham, it was the Black Cats that got off to a great start, taking the lead in the second minute. Giaccherini was allowed a free header off a Sebastian Larsson corner kick, and the Italian nodded the ball past Artur Boruc. It was the ideal start for Di Canio’s men, who dictated majority of their match against Fulham last week, but was unable to find a goal.
Pochettino was disgruntled by the Saints’ early setback, but sees the defensive error as a learning curve in his side’s development.
“I fully take responsibility in that sense. It just shows that we have to improve. It’s not acceptable that we step onto the pitch in that manner. We were basically asleep,” Pochettino said.
“It’s a big lesson for us. It’ll help us to improve,” he said.
Jay Rodriguez found the back of the net two minutes later, but the goal was rightfully ruled offside. Southampton striker Rickie Lambert dropped deep to receive the ball, and he played a lovely pass to Rodriguez, who made a diagonal run and slipped the ball past Westwood.
Sunderland’s energetic start prevented Pochettino’s men from dictating the match. Their 4-4-1-1 became a 4-5-1 when they didn’t have the ball, with Giaccherini and Adam Johnson working hard to nullify the attacking threat of Southampton’s fullbacks – Giaccherini in particular was exceptional, keeping Luke Shaw quiet during his time on the field.
The Black Cats stayed compact and organized in their third of the pitch, allowing Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama to have possession, but the Saints’ double-pivot struggled to play balls into their attacking midfielders. Rodriguez and Adam Lallana had to drift infield to receive the ball, but didn’t succeed when doing so. Pocchettino’s men were stubborn, and continuously persisted on attacking through the middle, but Sunderland comfortably handled every attack they faced.
With the centre of the pitch congested, Southampton found their attacking source in wide areas, courtesy of James Ward-Prowse. In the 17th minute, the 18 year-old winger nearly orchestrated the equalizer, when Lambert forced Westwood into making a great save. Ward-Prowse’s delivery from set-pieces were also exceptional, but Pochettino’s men were unable to take advantage of Sunderland’s dire set-piece defending.
Both side’s made interesting alterations at half-time – Pocchettino introduced Osvaldo and Nathaniel Clyne for Schneiderlin and Shaw, thus pushing Ward-Prowse into the double-pivot with Wanyama. Di Canio introduced Ji Dong-Won for Sessegnon, which gave the Black Cats more of a threat on the counter-attack, and Sunderland nearly put the match out of sight in the 57th minute. Ji played in a lovely ball for the isolated Altidore, but the American striker forced Boruc to make a great save – Ji and Johnson also flashed shots wide of the net, but Sunderland rarely tested Boruc throughout the 90 minutes.
Southampton’s intent on penetrating through the middle continued in the second half, and despite the introduction of Gaston Ramirez, Pochettino’s men rarely troubled Sunderland in those areas. Osvaldo’s debut was interesting, and inspiring for Saints fans – despite showing his cynical side towards the end of the game, Osvaldo’s presence opened gaps for Southampton’s attacking three to receive balls between the lines. The Italian striker linked play with the wide men in hope of creating overloads and his off the ball movement was impressive, often drifting into key areas in the final third.
For all their dominance, Southampton waited until the final minutes to solve Westwood. Throughout the match several free-headers forced Westwood into simple saves, and Saints players failed to get on the end of Ward-Prowse’s delivery. But to Pocchettino’s delight, Fonte met the 18-year-old’s scintillating free-kick in the 88th minute, to earn his side a valuable point.
Southampton were rewarded for their dominance in possession, as Sunderland remain winless. Di Canio’s men failed to offer any variety of attack going forward, and were determined to hold on to their lead, thus allowing Southampton to assert their authority on the match. Di Canio was aware of his men’s dire performance and stated the obvious in his post-match press conference.
“We were leading at 1-0 but another set-play cost us two points. It was a cheap free-kick but 1-0 is more than acceptable. We have to be honest, Southampton deserved to win this game because they played better,” Di Canio said.
As for Southampton, they remain unbeaten in their opening matches, and have looked to assemble a side capable of finishing in the top-half, and potentially competing for a Europa league spot. Pochettino was aware that his side deserved more, but at this moment, he’s focused on their growth over the season.
“We had the best chances, and we actually deserved the three points. We just have to look ahead and prepare well for the coming games,” Pochettino said.