While the visitors might not have necessarily deserved to win this game, the hosts didn’t do enough to win this game.
After gift-wrapping and serving with a pretty bow and a red ribbon two goal-shaped early Christmas presents to Sheffield Wednesday in their previous game, there was a steely determination evident in this Forest performance to hide any presents at the back of the wardrobe. In fact, there were no presents even bought. Nothing. Forgot to go shopping. A card from a multipack was all that Forest were giving away this time. Purely perfunctory, at best.
It wasn’t quite comfortable watching Jonny Williams and Callum McMananam dance around like Staying Alive-era John Travolta while in possession only to evolve into something more approximating John Prescott when they got a sight of goal, yet it was never a case of full on panic stations at def con one. Williams’ fizzer from the edge of the area caused a few audible exhales of breath to be released as it whisked narrowly past the post and an aerial bombardment in added time at the end of the game had those in the away end repeatedly urging the referee to end it yet apart from that, while no cigars were in close residence, Sunderland were kept largely at arm’s length.
The deployment of a good old-fashioned back four no doubt contributed to this improved defensive performance with two full backs whose main function was to defend. No gallivanting up in support of the wide men unless the ball was deep into the opposition’s half. Even then, stop, check, think, think again and only then, tentatively put a fairy step forward beyond the halfway line. For those who feared manager Mark Warburton perhaps lacked a plan B, this performance was his riposte. Of course, this cannot be solely attributed to the switch to a back four – the personnel changed too with Matt Mills and Armand Traore coming in at the expense of Danny Fox and Jack Hobbs. But beyond formation and personnel, what really matters when defending is to generally get in the way of the opposition and make a right old nuisance of yourself so that any shots are blocked and balls in the air are properly challenged. This Forest did - and did well.
In truth, it wasn’t a great game of football. Given the slippery conditions, all too often the ball ran away too easily from any attempts to control or dribble the ball, at which point, a howitzer of a sliding challenge was launched from around forty yards away. At one stage in the second half, possession changed hands five times in the space of thirty seconds as players from both sides won the ball impressively yet found it more taxing to keep hold of it. It was that type of game.
While Forest struggled to carve out many chances and indeed, shots on target, they enjoyed 56% possession which although counts for nothing in the whole scheme of things, suggests that this wasn’t a fly-by-the-night-hit-and-run-park-the-bus type of away performance. A point and a clean sheet would have done just nicely before kick off and if patience in possession provided something shiny on top of that, then it would be smuggled home and treasured.
Perhaps typical of the game, it was a mistake from Sunderland defender Tyias Browning (on loan from Everton) that precipitated Daryl Murphy’s late winner. It was Browning who knocked a seemingly simple ball out to the right back area fully expecting the right back to be there. He wasn’t. Barrie McKay pounced, fed the ball inside to Murphy who took a touch before finding the bottom corner. It wasn’t an easy chance but he made it look relatively straightforward.
While the win – a first for the club at the Stadium of Light – abruptly halted a run of two consecutive defeats, the game says as much about Sunderland and the Championship as it does Nottingham Forest. The hosts haven’t tasted victory at home since December 2016 and entered this game low on confidence. Consequently, home support has dwindled significantly and morale is low; few home fans walk across Wearmouth Bridge these days expecting to see a win. Yet with Forest in town – a team on a run of two consecutive defeats, leaking goals like leek field and not the greatest travellers in this league - they surely fancied their chances. There are better teams than Forest that will come knocking on the Black Cat’s door this season and as Forest fans know, it can be a hard slog when you can’t buy a home win for any amount of love, money, bluster, screaming or pleading.
A sterner test awaits Forest with Wolves up at the City Ground next but this performance indicates that there is more to this team than flowery prose punctuated with huge black inkblots at the bottom of the page. Sometimes, you just need to make straightforward bullet-pointed notes.