CLEARLY, there is something about facing Leeds United that suits Sunderland. Having inflicted a rare defeat on Daniel Farke’s side at the Stadium of Light in December, the Black Cats deprived promotion-chasing Leeds of another two points at Elland Road last night. Under the cosh for long periods, the visitors’ much-maligned defence held firm.

Luke O’Nien and Dan Ballard excelled as part of a remodelled five-man backline, although the former was fortunate not to concede a late penalty when he handled the ball from a corner.

Trai Hume, Timothee Pembele and Callum Styles all made important contributions to a rugged and resolute defensive display that frustrated Leeds for long spells, with Dan Neil equally effective as a defensive spoiler at the heart of midfield. Anthony Patterson made a couple of decisive punches under pressure, but was surprisingly underemployed when it came to actually having to produce any saves.

Mike Dodds deserves credit for the stalemate, with his tactics once again enabling Sunderland to shackle a Leeds side that have been sweeping all before them for much of the season, especially on their home turf. Indeed, had Jack Clarke taken one of the first-half half-chances that came his way, the Black Cats might even have been celebrating what would have been a genuinely remarkable double.

Back in December, Dodds was lauded for the tactical tweak that enabled his Sunderland side to neuter a previously free-scoring Leeds line-up, so it was not really a surprise to see him return to a five-man defensive shape in order to repeat the trick last night.

The change in formation resulted in a first Sunderland start for Pembele at right wing-back, with Styles restored to the starting line-up on the opposite side of the backline. Pembele, a raw 21-year-old who joined from Paris St Germain’s reserve ranks last summer, certainly boasts the athleticism needed to excel as a wing-back; the question he had to answer last night was whether he also possessed the patience and positional discipline required to deal with Leeds’ main playmaker, Crysencio Summerville.

The answer was a resounding ‘yes’, with Pembele defending with an impressive combination of commitment and composure to contain Summerville before being replaced by Aji Alese midway through the second half.

Crucially, though, Pembele was not the only player in Sunderland’s pink change kit defending stoutly. With their five-man backline, and four more players strung across midfield, Sunderland’s gameplan was based around containment. Leeds had a remarkable 87 per cent of possession in the opening ten minutes of the game, but with the Black Cats happy to sit in and deny their opponents any space in the final third, the hosts failed to record a single effort on goal in that period.

Indeed, when the first opportunity of the evening arrived shortly before the quarter-hour mark, it fell to Sunderland. Pembele whipped in an inviting cross from the right, but while an onrushing Clarke got his head to the ball on the edge of the six-yard box, he was under considerable pressure and could not keep his effort on target.

Nevertheless, the Black Cats had served notice of their capabilities on the break, and while Georginio Rutter flashed a long-range effort wide of the target shortly after, the anxiety levels within the home support, who had seen their side drop three priceless points at Coventry three days earlier, were increasingly apparent.

Sunderland’s sold-out travelling support will have been delighted with their team’s application; the only disappointment from a Wearside perspective was that on the limited occasions when the visitors had the ball, they didn’t really look after it well enough.

Even so, with Clarke darting inside dangerously from the left-hand side before firing in a shot that was saved by the body of an onrushing Ilan Meslier, it could definitely be argued that Sunderland were the more dangerous side before the interval despite their lack of possession for much of the first half.

The interval arrived with the scoresheet still blank – a notable achievement for the visitors – and when the second half began with a fired-up O’Nien picking up a booking for smashing into Dan James, it was clear that Sunderland’s players were not about to take a backward step in the second half.

There was a scare for the Wearsiders ten minutes into the second period when Summerville broke clear and released James into the area. The Welshman went down under a last-ditch challenge from Ballard, but while it initially looked as though the centre-half had bundled his opponent over, the flag went up for offside. Replays showed it was an extremely close call, and had the assistant not raised his flag, referee Tim Robinson might well have felt compelled to award a penalty.

Instead, time ticked on with Sunderland holding firm, but with Leeds gradually beginning to build up a head of steam as they increasingly became encamped within their opponents’ half.

Dodds made his first change just before the hour mark, bringing on Patrick Roberts for a hugely-impressive Chris Rigg, who continues to look anything but 16, and while Summerville curled a free-kick into the side-netting midway through the second period, the hosts’ lack of incision remained the game’s decisive factor.

Sunderland’s second-half attacking was generally less threatening than their first, although Roberts forced Meslier into a sprawling save with a 71st-minute free-kick from just outside the corner of the 18-yard box.

Leeds felt they should have had a penalty with 14 minutes left, and they were probably right. O’Nien made contact with the ball with his hand as he leaped to try to prevent Joe Rodon from reaching a corner, but play was waved on. Had VAR been in operation in the Championship, a spot-kick would almost certainly have been awarded.