Following an impressive opening to the season, the Mackems’ form has dipped alarmingly and they are now just five points from the relegation zone. Their performances have suddenly become meager and curiously meek when compared to the dynamic Sunderland side that were faring so well at the beginning of the campaign. Cumulative injuries and suspensions have certainly played their part, but much of the dynamism and discipline that characterized Sunderland’s approach early in the season has curiously vanished and a visible lack of confidence has begun to seep into their play.
In their three recent league games the Black Cats have exhibited all the hallmarks of a team playing without any self-assurance. During their 1-1 draw at home to Portsmouth – whilst clinging on to a one goal lead – they sat deeper and deeper for the last fifteen minutes and did not show any ambition going forward. They were unable to retain possession of the ball and as a result Pompy were invited towards the Sunderland goal and gifted an injury-time equaliser. Four days later in the 2-0 home defeat to Aston Villa it was defensive confusion that resulted in Villa’s opener. When James Milner’s wonderful second went in the Black Cats showed no sign of being able to get back into the match, surrendering possession of the ball to the Midlanders who can not have had a more comfortable final half hour of a game all season.
Against Manchester City at the weekend – although the Wearside club showed character to take advantage of the home side’s well documented defensive shortcomings to equalize three times – they never looked like being able to win the game. City were only holding onto a one goal lead for the final twenty minutes but Sunderland did not create one goal-scoring opportunity and were reduced to playing aimless balls down the channels which were intercepted with ease by the home side.
For all the luck they appeared to be getting at the start of the season – summed up by the notorious beach ball assist in their home win against Liverpool – during the same match they lost Lee Cattermole to injury. Cattermole is clearly a key player in the Steve Bruce blueprint and his excellent early season form had propelled Sunderland into European contention and led to whispers about a possible England call up. Cattermole’s injury coincided with the beginning of the Wearsider’s dismal run. Although he started Saturday’s 4-3 defeat at Manchester City, he had been rushed back due to the suspension of his fellow defensive midfielder Lorik Cana. The excellent early season form of the former Wigan man made up for a chronic lack of creativity in the Sunderland midfield. The Black Cats relied on a high energy pressing game, hassling their opponents out of possession and hitting them immediately on the break. Cattermole was central to this tactic, his tireless running in midfield leaving the other side very little time in possession.
The inclusion of two tough tackling holding players in the midfield four – the other being Cana – also freed up Andy Reid, Sunderland’s most creative outlet. He was allowed the autonomy to drift out of position from his left sided berth and was central to most of the north-east side’s attacking play. The Irishman was able to frequently try the more ambitious pass, in the knowledge that if it did not come off his team would still keep their shape and be effective against their opponent’s counter-attack. When Cattermole departed from the side, so did much of their shape and discipline and in recent games when Sunderland have lost the ball on the attack, they have looked disorganised, shapeless and vulnerable.
Also responsible for this lack of organisation is the constant chopping and changing of personnel at the back Bruce has been forced into making. In the last 13 league games he has only been able to name the same back four in consecutive games once and during that time has used eight different variations in his defensive line. The result of this has been defensive chaos, particularly during last week’s games at home to Aston Villa and at Manchester City in which elementary errors gifted characterized most of the goals Sunderland conceded. As a result they have the worst defensive record in the top half of the table having only managed three clean sheets this season.
Bruce will undoubtedly need time and money to turn his fledgling Sunderland side into one he can call his own. The main features of his Wigan Athletic side were discipline, organisation and dynamism and it will undoubtedly take a few more transfer windows before he has the personnel to properly apply this formula at the Stadium of Light. However, he will need to work with what he has at the moment in an attempt to rescue a season from calamity that had initially promised so much.