Sunderland were unable to continue their unbeaten run away from home after a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Watford at Vicarage Road.

In a dead rubber clash that lacked any real quality, it was Mike Dodds' side who had the better opportunities but went home empty handed.

Ryan Andrews' strike midway through the second half gave the Hornets their first win at home since November in Tom Cleverley's first game in permanent charge.

READ MORE: Why is Dan Neil unappreciated after best Sunderland season

Here are the key talking points from Sunderland's defeat at Watford:

Mike Dodds sticks with back five despite 'boring' criticism

Injuries in central midfield may have tempted Dodds into a tactical rethink after a sluggish performance in Sunderland's defeat to Millwall, but the interim head coach stuck with the 3-4-3/ -2-3 shape that we've seen in recent weeks. It was an interesting ploy from Dodds, especially after he doubled down on his 'boring' verdict of the defeat to Millwall last weekend. Watford's shape will have likely played into that, lining up in a 3-4-3 of their own.

Jobe and Pierre Ekwah occupied the midfield engine room with Adil Aouchiche playing as a false nine. Dodds had spoken about wanting to move Millwall's back line around last weekend - something he felt they didn't do enough. But, in the opening stages of today's game, Aouchiche found pockets of space in between the lines well, albeit without threatening. You could see that Mattie Pollock and Wesley Hoedt were struggling to keep tabs on the Frenchman.

Sunderland's issue was they didn't look after the ball well enough in the first-half. Out of possession, they look solid, but once again they lacked ideas, particularly when trying to build-up from the back. 

Aji Alese's commanding display

It may highlight Sunderland's ineffectiveness in the final third by signalling out a defender in a 1-0 defeat, but Aji Alese was a mountain at the back this afternoon - apart from finding himself out of position for Watford's winner. Having missed so much of the campaign it's easy to forget just how good he was last season. Dodds has had to manage his return to action, but there have been no signs of him being worried about picking up another injury.

The former West Ham academy talent flew into tackles and was imperious in the air from the first whistle to the last. His recent displays have shown extending his contract to the end of 2027 was a no brainer. Keeping him fit next season could have a huge impact on how successful the 2024/25 campaign is.

We Are Sunderland: Aji Alese was impressive in Sunderland's defeat to Watford.Aji Alese was impressive in Sunderland's defeat to Watford. (Image: Ian Horrocks)

Adil Aouchiche's false nine role

The debate surrounding Sunderland's 'number nine' role continues and will no doubt carry on through the summer. Where are the goals going to come from? Although the injury to Dan Neil may have forced Dodds' hand somewhat, it was somewhat of a surprise to see Aouchiche tasked with leading the line. We'll have to see what the interim head coach says in his post-match press conference for the reasoning behind it, but you could see what the Black Cats were trying to do.

The Frenchman gave Sunderland a connection that they've missed throughout the campaign, playing a key part in the Wearsiders' forays forward. His 20 touches in the first-half an improvement on Bradley Dack's 11 last week. The Black Cats' best opportunity of the opening 45 minutes came through Aouchiche's running from deep. He picked the ball up in the left-hand channel, brilliantly riding a challenge from a Watford defender to set up a 3 vs 2.

Clarke's run out to the left allowed the false nine to drift infield, with Rigg in acres of space inside the area. Aouchiche rolled in the Black Cats academy graduate, but somehow, his effort went the wrong side of the post. The travelling Red and White Army thought they had the lead - Watford fans were quick to remind them they didn't. The former PSG trainee linked up well with Clarke in the second-half who didn't have his shooting boots on.

The Frenchman lead Sunderland's press well, but there were times where he wasn't backed up by team-mates and the Hornets were able to play out. Out of the players the Black Cats did recruit in the most recent summer transfer window - aside from Jobe - it's fair to say Aouchiche has looked the most promising. If he kicks on next season, adding goals and assists to his game, he might be the answer to unlocking that final third.

Missed opportunities prove costly

It may be harsh to single out Jack Clarke given how much he's contributed to the Black Cats campaign, but he hasn't been able to rediscover that goal scoring knack that he prior to his injury lay-off. He found it tough in the first-half to get the beating of Ryan Porteous - who to give credit where credit is due, had his number.

After the restart, Sunderland were able to get Clarke in the game more, in dangerous areas on the pitch, but he lacked the conviction to beat Daniel Bachmann, where in previous games has produced moments of magic. The Black Cats talisman had a number of chances, cutting in from the right to open the scoring, but he just couldn't connect cleanly when presented with a shooting opportunity. The winger grew visibly frustrated as the game wore on - but that didn't stop his industry. Just an off day. On another day he could have had three or four. 

He wasn't alone. Rigg's opportunity in the first-half one of, if not the biggest opportunity for Sunderland. A scramble in the dying embers of the game saw Styles' effort blocked after Luis Hemir's cutback. Another game passes with the Black Cats drawing a blank.

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Charlie Hurley

Sunderland mourned the passing of a legend this week and it was a touch of class from Watford as they paid tribute to Charlie Hurley before kick-off. The travelling red and white faithful were in fine voice for there being very little to play for other than personal price, their tribute to 'the King' impeccable. Wearsiders sang 'Who's the best centre-half that the world has ever seen?' non stop for the opening seven minutes of the game. Both sets of supporters rose to their feet for a minutes applause in the 87th minute to commemorate the Sunderland legend - a fitting tribute to one of the Black Cats' finest ever players.