Cristhian Stuani, a surprise inclusion at kick-off, scored a stunning goal against the run of play early in the game before tapping in from close range to cap off an excellent team move just before half-time.
Debutant Brad Guzan spilled Duncan Watmore’s shot into the path of Patrick van Aanholt to give Sunderland hope but Boro survived the late barrage to ensure that the first North-East derby of the season would be a memorable one for the travelling fans. But what did we learn from what we saw from Boro?
Surprise rotation pays dividends
Aitor Karanka has never been a manager shy of making unpopular calls ahead of big games – think Stewart Downing and Albert Adomah being dropped against Wolves last season, or Stuani and David Nugent starting against Brighton – but he showed once more today that springing a tactical surprise pays off.
Adomah wasn’t at his best against Stoke last weekend by any means, but his attacking runs caused problems against a better defence than Sunderland’s. Many Boro fans remain adamant that Stuani is incapable of playing on the wing despite getting into double scoring figures from the right flank in the first half of last season, and he showed again today that his less direct approach to wing play makes him a difficult proposition for defenders.
To put him in the same bracket as Thomas Muller would obviously be too far, but he embodies the ‘raumdeuter’ term that the German coined for his role – finding space all over the right half of the pitch, cutting infield or moving out and drifting into the centre for unmarked tap-ins.
Forshaw takes his big chance
Adam Forshaw has had plenty of chances at Boro, and it’s difficult to think of one that he hasn’t taken. Against Huddersfield and Reading last season he popped up with crucial goal contributions, and today he split the Sunderland defence with a stunning reverse pass in the lead-up to Stuani’s second goal.
With Marten de Roon and Grant Leadbitter out of action for the immediate future, Forshaw is now part of a midfield pivot which picks itself alongside Adam Clayton. His terrier-like enthusiasm and graft, coupled with his cultured distribution of the ball, means he could be an important secret weapon for Karanka this season.
Negredo not yet at 100%
It was another solid performance from Alvaro Negredo today, albeit one that he didn’t manage to cap with a goal as he did last weekend. However, there were signs that he is not yet operating at full capacity.
His missed chance just before Sunderland’s goal was one which he’d be expected to score at a later point in the season, with his touch letting him down after being released by Stuani. He didn’t win every ball forward but he remained a useful focal point for the Boro attack.
In the final minutes, though, he looked ragged and breathless and Nugent should probably have entered the fray a few moments earlier. With the attack reenergised with Nugent on the field, Sunderland’s back four had no time to dwell on the ball and their attacking threat was depleted as a result.
Valdes should return when fit
To say that Brad Guzan had a poor game would be slightly unfair. He didn’t have a great deal to do, and made one stunning save at 2-0 in the second half. However, his mistake led to Sunderland’s rejuvenating goal and he almost gifted them a second within five minutes.
Victor Valdes was not without fault last week and his slight stature is a worry, particularly from set pieces. But he looked more assured, was comfortable coming off his line to make clearances and his distribution was a cut above.
If Boro are to hold onto the ball and build from the back, or launch long balls from the goalkeeper, Valdes is better qualified to do it. You just try telling Pep Guardiola that goalkeepers don’t need to be good on the ball.
Boro still missing an extra dimension?
Jordan Rhodes deserves his chance in the Premier League as much as anyone in the squad, but rumours of his exit from the club – immediately shot down as nonsense by Karanka after the game – did at least raise hopes that Boro could still be in the market for another forward.
With opponents no longer sitting eleven men behind the ball as they did in the Championship last season, Boro don’t look blunt in attack. Far from it. But there still exists the niggling doubt that they lack a striker with the pace to break the defensive line in the mould of Jamie Vardy or Andre Gray.
Teams don’t have to rely on pace in attack – ask Ibrahimovic and Rooney – but it would be a useful option for Karanka to have when things aren’t going his way. Finding a fast, clinical striker willing to be a ‘useful option’, however, isn’t such an easy thing to do.
Defensive bedrock remains intact
There were some eyebrows raised last week when Antonio Barragan made his Middlesbrough debut out of position in the centre of defence, but he has produced potentially Man of the Match performances in both of his games so far.
With Daniel Ayala making his return in the closing stages of the match and Bernardo Espinosa playing well for the under-23s in midweek, all of a sudden Karanka will be spoiled for choice at the back. Quite a contrast from David Moyes’ struggles in defensive positions.
Who is sacrificed is a difficult question. Emilio Nsue has provided attacking support as he always does, while Barragan has been defensively exemplary. It could well be a matter of Nsue at home and Barragan away as Karanka shifts his priorities between goals and clean sheets.