Another year, another Wembley cup final that sees Manchester City take on a relative minnow. The club ended a 35-year wait for silverware when Stoke was defeated in the FA Cup final three years ago, though last season was stunned by Wigan – the final nail in Roberto Mancini's insufficiently holistic coffin.
Now City travels south once more for the Capital One Cup final to take on a Sunderland side scrapping for its Premier League status, but the promises of atonement and renewed determination suggest the mark Wigan left on City will not allow the team to take Sunday's test lightly. The Latics, perhaps, have heightened the task facing Gus Poyet's men, but they also left lessons that can be utilized to spring another upset.
Paramount to Sunderland's gameplan, just as it was for Wigan, will be possession. Roberto Martinez's side was tutored to nurture the ball throughout his tenure, and duly recorded 49 percent possession in last May's encounter, completing a mere 14 passes fewer than City (which recorded 505 in total).
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Wigan never allowed its more illustrious opponent to take control of a largely even encounter, and in fact the team's average pass streak was superior. Wigan was able to take the tempo and sting out of passages of play and avoided being put under concerted pressure – at least until the latter stages of the contest.
Such a tactic would appear beyond Sunderland based on the club's most recent outing against Arsenal, a practice run for the final in which the team slumped to a 4-1 defeat at the Emirates Stadium. Prior to Olivier Giroud's fifth-minute strike the home side had boasted 93 percent possession, which settled to 65 percent by the end of the match, and completed 717 passes to the visiting side's 394.
Particularly in the first half, Sunderland was completely incapable of stopping Arsenal from playing, or retaining possession. While not a true reflection of how Poyet intends for his side to play, it did provide a worrying glimpse of the perils of sitting back, dropping deep and failing to pressure the opposition, especially one that shares so many similarities with City (as the former Brighton boss noted).
“Arsenal are difficult to play against when they are fresh and pass the ball well, but that [accepting opposition superiority] is not the way I play football and we were poor in many things,” the Uruguayan noted afterwards. “[We learned] how good you need to be technically to play against the better teams, how much possession you have to keep, and when you have a chance to break you have to finish the actions.”
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The return of Lee Cattermole, present in wins over Chelsea and Manchester United en route to Wembley, will be a massive boost. The tough-tackling midfielder was not risked against Arsenal, but is guaranteed to start in the final. “If there is one player starting next week, it is Lee Cattermole,” said his manager. “The rest at the moment are substitutes.”
The 25-year-old, who ironically once played his football at the DW Stadium, brings exactly the combination of ball-winning tenacity and deceptive poise in possession needed, and, with Poyet reluctant to use three at the back as Martinez did, can drop in and help his center back's outnumber City's two strikers.
Like Wigan before it, Sunderland must take the game to City, press aggressively, resist the temptation to retreat, be brave on the ball and look to harness its counterattacking strengths. Only Liverpool has scored more goals from fast breaks in the Premier League this term, but, as a percentage of total goals scored, Sunderland (11 percent) actually relies more heavily on counterattacking goals than the Merseysiders (8.5 percent).
The Black Cats did not show their countering claws in north London, though, failing to muster a single shot following a break, and much of that was due to the meek performances of left winger Adam Johnson and bulldozing frontman Jozy Altidore. Both were hauled off at halftime, perhaps rested, perhaps prime examples of the players Poyet warned were no longer guaranteed a start.
But the productive displays of hard-working frontman Arouna Kone and tricky winger Callum McManaman in last season's FA Cup final highlight the match-defining importance their Sunderland counterparts could have on the game.
Against Arsenal, Altidore was too isolated – partly through Arsenal's restricted, stifling possession, and partly by his own unwillingness to drop deep and reconnect with the midfield. The American, who touched the ball just 14 times in his 45 minutes on the pitch, seemed keener to test his own strength and aerial ability against Per Mertesacker rather than try to move the German around and exploit his lack of mobility and pace.
That is exactly the trap he cannot afford to fall into against City. What Kone did perfectly was to move Vincent Kompany around – a center back who likes to step up though usually falls somewhere between clumsy and reckless when doing so – and frequently pulled out wide when City's fullbacks had advanced up the field, thus dragging the Belgian with him.
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Just as it did for McManaman, that movement and involvement of the center forward should create more space and opportunities for Johnson. However, the former City winger – who has scored or assisted eight goals in seven league matches in 2014 and looked primed to punish his old club this weekend – will have to shed the shackles he donned at the Emirates.
The 26-year-old, once again snubbed by Roy Hodgson in his latest England squad, touched the ball just 11 times, the worst of any player who started, and completed zero dribbles. He never ran at Nacho Monreal, he never committed the Spaniard and he was far too conservative, with his average position deep in his own half.
Not only does that lie in stark contrast to McManaman, who completed nine dribbles and had 49 touches against City, terrorizing Gael Clichy and drawing foul after foul (even luring Pablo Zabaleta towards a red card), but it was also in contrast to Johnson's replacement on Saturday, Sebastian Larsson. The Swede retained his width, stayed high up the field and created three chances – the joint-most of any player on either side.
Though defeated against Arsenal, the match was an important dress rehearsal for what Sunderland can expect at Wembley and a necessary reminder of why the Black Cats should look to the aspects Wigan did so well in last year's FA Cup final. Now Poyet has a second chance to get it right, and must ensure his side shows the fearlessness on the ball required to prevent a repeat of the Emirates collapse and pull off another upset at City's expense.
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