What were the key takeaways from this weekend’s matches involving the North-East’s big three clubs?
SUNDERLAND 2 WEST BROM 1
MIKE DODDS IS A VIABLE HEAD COACH CANDIDATE
Mike Dodds hinted that he was interested in the head coach job on a permanent basis in the build-up to Saturday’s game, by the time it was finished, his credentials had been significantly enhanced. Guide Sunderland to another win over Leeds United tomorrow, and he really will be bang in the frame.
Dodds didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel at the weekend, naming pretty much the same side that Tony Mowbray had been selecting in his final few games in charge. There were a few minor tactical tweaks though, most notably the decision to nudge Dan Neil slightly higher up the field and rely on Pierre Ekwah to perform the majority of the defensive-midfield duties.
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman will continue to speak to alternative candidates, with Swede Kim Hellberg still regarded as a strong option. Having conclusively drawn a line under his previous caretaker spell, though, Dodds has to be considered a genuine option.
ALEX PRITCHARD STILL HAS IT
Mowbray’s reluctance to give Alex Pritchard much game time this season has been puzzling given Sunderland’s attacking issues and the former boss’ obvious liking of the 30-year-old.
Dodds didn’t start with Pritchard either, but he turned to the veteran playmaker just after the hour mark, and the substitute delivered as he set up both of Sunderland’s goals to effectively settle the game.
The pass to release Dan Neil for the Black Cats’ second goal encapsulated what Pritchard is all about, and while the attacking-midfielder’s injury record means he will have to be handled carefully, he is unquestionably still able to offer something to this Sunderland side.
PLAYING WITHOUT A STRIKER MIGHT BE THE WAY TO GO
In his final post-match press conference after the draw at Milwall, Mowbray hinted that he would ideally like to have played without a centre-forward, but that he felt like he was being forced to play one given that four had been signed by those above him in the summer.
The reality is that in Nazariy Rusyn, Mason Burstow, Luis Hemir and Eliezer Mayenda, Sunderland have four strikers who do not look even remotely ready for life in the Championship. The fact they have not scored a single goal between them all season surely tells you all that you need to know.
Dodds went without a natural number nine at the weekend, starting with Adil Aouchiche before turning to Pritchard, and that might well be the best way to go for the foreseeable future.
MIDDLESBROUGH 0 IPSWICH TOWN 2
BORO MISS HAYDEN HACKNEY
Middlesbrough were without nine senior players because of either injury or suspension at the weekend – but by far the biggest blow was the continued absence of midfield playmaker Hayden Hackney.
Hackney’s absence has highlighted just what the 21-year-old offers in terms of creativity, vision and the ability to knit play together in the middle of the pitch. Without him in the side at the weekend, Boro’s attacking play was disjointed and the Teessiders struggled to make any serious incursions into the Ipswich 18-year-old.
The extent of Hackney’s injury issue remains somewhat unclear, but with a packed December schedule showing no signs of easing up, his return cannot come quick enough.
IPSWICH ARE THE REAL DEAL
Having won promotion from League One, questions have been asked about whether Ipswich’s position in the Championship’s top two is sustainable. On the evidence of Saturday’s game, it very much is.
Ipswich have now won at Sunderland and Middlesbrough this season, and in Kieran McKenna, the Suffolk club clearly have a head coach who is going places. Whether Ipswich win promotion or not, McKenna will surely be plying his trade in the Premier League in the next couple of seasons.
They also boast a front three that is one of the most balanced and dangerous attacking units in the whole of the league. Conor Chaplin was the standout at the weekend, but George Hirst and Nathan Broadhead also pack quite a punch.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP REMAINS AS CONGESTED AS EVER
Boro have now lost three of their last four league games, yet while they might be sitting in 12th position, they remain just three points adrift of the play-off positions.
In fact, just nine points separate Sunderland in sixth from Huddersfield in 21st, and as is usually the case, the battle for the play-off places promises to be extremely unpredictable and hard-fought.
The three relegated clubs look increasingly nailed-on for a top-six place, and Ipswich look hard to dislodge too. The other two spots are very much up for grabs though, so Boro just need to hang in there until their injured players start coming back.
TOTTENHAM 4 NEWCASTLE UNITED 1
KIERAN TRIPPIER NEEDS A BREAK
When even Kieran Trippier is struggling, you know things are bad. Having been at fault for all three of Everton’s goals at Goodison Park on Thursday night, Trippier was found wanting again as Spurs scored their opening two goals. He was beaten far too easily by Son Heung-min for the opener, and then was flummoxed by the same player for Spurs’ second after failing to cut out a cross-field ball he should really have dealt with.
It is easy to forget that Trippier is 33 now, with Sunday’s game representing his fifth appearance in the space of 15 days. That is a huge workload, and while his importance, both on and off the field, is obvious, Eddie Howe cannot continue to run him into the ground.
He will start against AC Milan on Wednesday, but is then suspended for Saturday’s league game with Fulham after picking up his fifth booking of the season at the weekend. He will be missed against the Cottagers, but his absence could be a blessing in disguise.
LEWIS HALL REMAINS OUT OF FAVOUR
Given the number of players that are missing, and the lack of viable options on the substitutes’ bench, it is a surprise that we have not seen more of Lewis Hall, Newcastle’s summer loan signing from Chelsea.
Tino Livramento has done fairly well since being switched across to the left, but Hall is a natural left-back who has looked to carry a fair amount of attacking threat during his limited opportunities so far.
Howe was asked about Hall’s situation after the game at Spurs, and cited Livramento’s form as the main reason for his absence, suggesting Hall would ‘have to impress’ when his chance eventually arrived. With Trippier out, he might start against Fulham. At the moment, though, Hall looks to have some way to go before he is able to convince Howe he should be a regular starter.
WELCOME FACES RETURN
If there was to be a positive from Sunday’s thrashing, it was the return of Callum Wilson and Sean Longstaff from their respective injury issues.
Both came onto the field as second-half substitutes, and both seemed to be showing no ill-effects from their enforced absences. Wilson set up Joelinton’s stoppage-time consolation, while Longstaff snapped into a couple of tackles that suggested his problems have cleared up.
Howe didn’t want to commit to anything in his post-match press conference, but it would be a surprise if both players were not to be starting when AC Milan visit Tyneside for Wednesday’s Champions League decider.