A renowned level of inconsistency has typified Adam Johnson throughout his professional career, and the arrival of Gus Poyet as Sunderland manager has rejuvenated the English winger’s performance levels.
There’s been a general lift within the Sunderland dressing room, which has seen the Black Cats lose once in normal time since Dec 7. With a current run of two clean sheets, Poyet’s men have found a balance between defence and attack.
On their travels to St. James Park, Poyet stuck with his 4-1-4-1 that saw the in-form Adam Johnson, and Fabio Borini, play alongside Jozy Altidore, while Ki Seung-Yung and Jack Colback played ahead of newly acquired Liam Bridcutt in midfield. Newcastle was forced to enter the Tyneside derby without Yohan Cabaye, who completed his transfer to PSG this week, but the home side was eager to end a poor run against their rivals.
Here, Newcastle maintained more possession in the early stages of the match, but without midfield maestro Cabaye, Pardew’s men lack a ball-playing midfielder. Newcastle’s direct approach was unsuccessful, and Hatem Ben Arfa was unable to get involved in the attack. When the Magpies pushed into the final third, they were unable to produce the final ball to unlock an organized Sunderland backline.
Sunderland, however, were proactive in possession, providing the guile, and creativity the home side lacked. The key man in the match was Adam Johnson: the Sunderland winger injected creativity into Poyet’s attack, as Marcos Alonso headed his curling free-kick inches over the bar, and an unmarked Borini missed Johnson’s diagonal ball from deep inside the 18-yard box. Johnson was the main source behind Sunderland’s opener – he dragged Sammy Ameobi and Davide Santon out wide, which created half-space for Phil Bardsley to attack, thus leading to a clumsy Vurnon Anita foul.
Johnson provided a direct threat from the wing, with a mix of flair, but his attacking instincts to drive towards the net enabled him to tap Steven Taylor’s deflected shot into the back of the net. In the second half, the Sunderland winger came close to securing maximum points when he slid past Paul Dummett and Moussa Sissoko before firing a shot off the post.
Sunderland was lethal on the attack, but their defensive work without the ball was also superb. Johnson and Borini nullified the attacking threat Santon and Matthew Debuchy pose in advance positions on the flank. Ki was a reliable passer that drove forward into attack, as did Colback, but his work on the defensive end – completing four tackles and three interceptions – was pivotal.
Newcastle continued their direct approach in the second half, as they introduced Luuk de Jong, and became a 4-4-2. Pardew’s men created opportunities on the break: tame efforts from De Jong, Ameobi’s header over the net, and Mannone’s save to deny the Nigerian striker summed up Newcastle’s afternoon.
The contrast in form heading into the match was massive, but Johnson’s ability to influence the match was crucial – at the moment Newcastle lack a player capable of replicating his impact.