Norwich City 1 Sunderland 0

Josh Sargent’s goal nine minutes from time was enough to condemn Sunderland to a fourth straight defeat in the Championship and a second-straight under interim head coach Mike Dodds in a game of fine margins at Carrow Road.

Sargent capitalised on a loose ball in the penalty area to power beyond Anthony Patterson and leave Sunderland nine points adrift of the Championship's top six as their play-off hopes look all but over with 11 games of the season remaining.

Norwich twice hit the bar through Borja Sainz and Jack Stacey before Abdoullah Ba was denied by the woodwork in the second half with Sargent's goal enough to edge a close contest.

We Are Sunderland look at some of the key talking points


A revert to type

Dodds has been in charge for less than a fortnight but has already often repeated how he will not be afraid to shake things up when it comes to both his team selection and his approach to games.

Last weekend against Swansea City, we saw that to his detriment as he was, perhaps, guilty of overcomplicating things in a first half which saw the game completely run away from Sunderland.

In the build-up to the trip to Carrow Road, Dodds had suggested he would not be averse to playing a back three again before the end of the season, despite what was a chastening afternoon last weekend, but you always felt Sunderland would revert to type here.

And so they did with a back four as Dodds’ two changes came in attack with Luis Hemir and Romaine Mundle being handed just their second starts of the season as Nazariy Rusyn and Ba dropped down to the bench.

The change in system saw Callum Styles start the game where he finished it last week on the right of Sunderland’s midfield after a difficult afternoon up against Ronald Pereira Martins seven days ago.

Straight away it felt a little more comfortable for Sunderland. They looked much more organised and clued up on their game plan and where they needed to be which led to them shading things in the early stages of what was a close contest.

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland's momentum in the first half against Norwich City as per FutmobSunderland's momentum in the first half against Norwich City as per Futmob (Image: Futmob)

Although both teams stood off one another a little too much in the opening exchanges – the conditions perhaps playing their part in what turned into a torrential afternoon in Norfolk, it was Sunderland who you could argue were doing more of the probing – something which was abundantly clear they were unable to do within 10 minutes last week.

Hemir was a focal point, with Jobe Bellingham playing just off through the middle as Mundle and Styles operated as wide forwards in possession before dropping back into a 4-4-1-1 out of possession, something which appeared to complement Dodds’ side.


Containing Norwich

Although most would have welcomed the change from Dodds, the tactical side of things was likely to have been around containing a Norwich side who had scored 10 in their previous three outings at Carrow Road – David Wagner’s team failing to score just once so far in 2024 in a narrow defeat against Leeds United at Elland Road.

And for that, Sunderland deserve some credit, particularly in the first half, as they limited Norwich - their best chance coming courtesy of Sainz who clipped the top of Patterson’s bar from range when picking up possession from a cleared corner.

Sunderland had to dig in at the beginning of the second 45 minutes, with Wagner’s side increasing their tempo and momentum as the hosts again hit the bar after Stacey’s cross had drifted towards goal, almost catching Patterson out.

Sunderland’s No.1 was called into action again to deny both Gabriel Sara and Sainz as it felt like a matter of when, not if, Norwich would score in the early period of the second half.

But Dodds’ side were able to weather that storm and grab a foothold in the game themselves before it was their turn to be denied by the bar following some clever play out wide by Ba, as he tried to catch Angus Gunn out at his near post.

Sunderland were enjoying their most promising spell in the second half when they fell behind as Gibson’s cross wasn’t dealt with which allowed Sargent the opportunity to pounce.


Where is Sunderland’s confidence and is that the play-off push over for good?

Despite the defeat, one thing you would say is that Sunderland responded to last week’s defeat to Swansea. There was more structure and buy-in here in Norfolk.

There were several similarities to the fixture here last season when Sunderland arrived on the back of three straight defeats with their play-off hopes diminishing. On that occasion, Sunderland came away with a somewhat unexpected, and hard-fought, three points following Ba’s first goal for the club.

It would prove to be their only win in a nine game period before a strong finish to the campaign but here, the pendulum swung the other way. This was a close game and Sunderland were competitive. But, much like throughout the majority of the season, they lacked that ruthless edge in the final third and it is ultimately going to cost them.

The gap is now nine points to sixth place and the reality is that this particular version of Sunderland are short of what is required to find themselves in the conversation this time around.


Away form continues to escape Sunderland

The crux of which may also come down to their away form.

This was Sunderland’s fifth game on the road in 2024; they’ve scored just three goals and taken just one point from a possible 15. Part of Sunderland’s ascension into the play-offs last season was built upon a hugely impressive away form having ended the season fourth in that particular category. Here they continue to slide, having won just four times on their travels this season.

Sunderland have performed worse away from the Stadium of Light this season, and may feel slightly aggrieved by heading home from Carrow Road empty-handed. But where last season, for example, they were able to edge a close-fought fixture such as this, this year they have fallen short.

We Are Sunderland: Luis Hemir made his second start of the season for Sunderland against Norwich CityLuis Hemir made his second start of the season for Sunderland against Norwich City (Image: Ian Horrocks)


Luis Hemir's first start since opening day of the season

As we often see in these three-game week periods, managers and head coaches imply the need to rotate their squads. ‘We’ll need to utilise everyone’ is usually the go-to line and this week was no different for Dodds, who had used his press conference to put praise on summer signing Hemir for his recent impact from the bench.

The young Portuguese forward has had a challenging time since his move to Wearside last summer with the hopes and expectations not necessarily marrying up to the output we have seen as he acclimatises to both moving to the North East as well as the rough and tumble nature of the Championship and what’s required.

In that sense, it’s a far cry from what Hemir has been used to when impressing for Benfica’s B team, where Sunderland saw his potential.

Hemir started the opening game of the season against Ipswich Town at the Stadium of Light but failed to live up to those expectations as the reality of Championship life daunted on him. That had been his only start in a Sunderland shirt until the trip to Norwich. The 15 appearances in-between have all come from the bench where he has averaged around 16-minutes per appearance – for any player, that is a difficult timeframe in which to enhance your development.

And yet, you wonder how different things might have been had Hemir carried his pre-season form into the new campaign after finding the back of the net four times before the new season. The 20-year-old had chances in the opening month of the season, even from the bench, against Southampton and Queens Park Rangers, where things may have transpired differently.

But he has improved in his recent substitute appearances, something Dodds accredited to an improvement in fitness as much as anything as he continues to get up to speed with the English game.

“He’s definitely in the thinking because we’re going to have to utilise the squad and he’s definitely one who is pushing a lot harder than he has pushed before,” said Dodds.

“He’s taking some time to adapt to life in England – he’s a 20-year-old boy that’s come over by himself, he’s never left his home country and sometimes those boys just need a little bit of time, butut one thing I would say about Hemir is he’s a wonderful finisher.

“He’s still got to get fitter - I think he has improved on that, and that’s why you see the level of his performance in the games when he has come on and you see a better performance and I think there’s a correlation between him getting fitter and his performance levels getting better.”

But how did Hemir do back in the starting line-up?

From the onset, Hemir was a clear, distinguished outlet through the middle, despite his rare involvement, as it allowed the likes of Mundle and Trai Hume , who was effective on the overlap on the right of Sunderland’s attack, a little more freedom.

Although Hemir only had a handful of touches in the opening 45 minutes we did see him pressure the Norwich defence a little more than we saw from him earlier in the season, particularly Ben Gibson when forcing him to concede a corner.

The Portuguese also linked well with Dan Neil before narrowly missing the cross from Hume, again the kind of movement which has been lacking.

Sunderland found themselves under a little more pressure to begin the second half which, again, limited his involvement before a series of tidy touches helped them to advance up-field and into the channel as they looked to weather a little bit of the storm.

But, like most who have occupied Sunderland’s main striking role this season, Hemir was starved of enough service to make him a real threat to Gunn’s goal as his return to the side, ultimately, came to nothing.