Opening Day Thoughts
So how much can you read into the opening game of the season?
It’s easy to forget just how long the season is when you’ve waited all summer for a competitive ball to be kicked and a draw, away from home, against a relegated side is far from the worst result.
However, here was a side low on confidence who’d taken a battering on the pitch the weekend previous and hammering off it once Darron Gibson’s head had stopped spinning. Sunderland were wounded animal before a ball had even been kicked and you have to wonder what Derby’s pre-game instructions were when you see how they struggled through the first half.
To their credit, Sunderland pressed intensely from the start and took control of the game. They were a team with a point to prove and they were unfortunate to go a goal behind.
Johnny Russell, who has spent the majority of pre-season being touted as this seasons scape goat, controlled Tom Huddlestone’s cross field ball superbly, ran outside the full back and crossed for Bradley Johnson to tap home. It was a brilliant phase of play by Russell, hopefully we can see more of the same in the weeks to come.
In the moments after the goal, Derby needed to get their foot on the ball and control the game to frustrate what would have been a crowd ready to turn on their players. They failed to do so and Sunderland continued to create chances forcing one outstanding save from Scott Carson.
Derby were shaky at the back and kept allowing Sunderland chances to create. Eventually they won a penalty in slightly fortunate circumstances. Jacob Butterfield, average throughout, fell into the ball to which the referee (relatively steady until this point) duly awarded a penalty. The handball rule is still a grey area because Butterfield almost certainly didn’t deliberately handle the ball but his arm did change the direction of it. Interestingly though, there weren’t many appeals from the opposition and everyone looked a bit perplexed when the penalty was given. Maybe you can read into that? Anyway, Lewis Grabban scored.
Sunderland’s equaliser seemed to wake Derby up (it only took 42 minutes) and they should have had a penalty of their own when Lee Cattermole, err, clattered into Butterfield. “Great tackle” the referee continually mouthed. It wasn’t. It was a foul. It should have been a penalty. We’d have probably missed it. Half time.
Derby were better in the second half. They calmed themselves and found some composure and in turn started to take control of the game. If Rowett is to persist with Huddlestone and Butterfield in midfield then it’s essential that they start to control games because out of possession Butterfield is merely a passenger. He lacks that yard of pace, physicality or defensive nous.
There were encouraging signs for Derby when they began to get their foot on the ball. The introduction of Matej Vydra added pace and directness to a front line that hadn’t offered much up until that point. His run through the Sunderland defence and pass to set up Martin was one of the highlights of the second half. Martin, one on one with the keeper blazed his shot high into the stands when it probably was easier to score.
Another chance fell to David Nugent towards the end of the game when he got a touch of the Andi Weimann’s and completely missed the ball when any form of decent contact would likely have secured victory.
The draw was probably fair in the end. Sunderland hit the post in the second half after a Johnson error and Derby had their chances to win it.
As opening days go, it wasn’t great. It also wasn’t that bad. It was probably what you’d expect from an opening day. Plenty of optimism and enthusiasm which was halted by a sense of realism. There is a lot to improve on but there were signs in the second half that were genuinely encouraging. This is a long season. Don’t waste your weekend reading too much into that. There’s ages to go.