Club Focus – Sunderland – Bad Luck hampers Sunderland

The curse of the injury time equalizer once again befell Sunderland at the Stadium of Light at the weekend as Manchester City earned a point with Adam Johnson’s late goal.

Going into the game on a high after their 4-0 win over Bolton Wanderers in midweek, Sunderland started the game positively, bossed possession and soon got their rewards when Steed Malbranque’s excellent cross found the head of Kenwyne Jones for his eighth goal of the campaign. For the second game running Malbranque was the main man in attack, cutting inside from the left and causing Micah Richards no end of difficulties. The Belgian born winger’s resurgence has transformed Sunderland’s attacking play and he has brought back much needed guile, intelligence and creativity to the Wearsider’s midfield. For a team that has so often looked startled in possession, resorting to a crude, direct form of the game, Malbranque’s inclusion in the starting line up is of great worth and he provides a much needed attacking outlet who rarely looks phased in possession. The rest of Sunderland’s midfielders need to take note. The trouble is, he rarely lasts a game and he simply did not have the same energy to get up and down the pitch during the second half. He was substituted midway through and the home side did not look the same going forward again.

Of course, Steve Bruce knows before each game that this is very likely to be the case and should account for it in his game plan. What he could not have foreseen was Jones’ halftime injury that left Sunderland without another potent attacking threat. The big Trinidad and Tobago international had one of his more effective first half performances, holding the ball up well, winning headers, making himself a general nuisance and of course scoring the goal. He showed a general willingness to make himself available to his teammates which occasionally deserts his game and if he could have carried on in the second half, this again may have relieved some of the constant pressure that Sunderland found themselves under. Also, in the latter stages of games, Jones has often proved a valuable defender, particularly with his prowess in the air when defending set pieces. This was a particularly cruel moment for the Black Cats to lose such an important player and they were never a threat in the second half, allowing City back into the game. The Manchester side had made effective changes of their own but it looked like Sunderland had weathered the storm deep in injury time when Adam Johnson’s pinpoint strike struck the cruel blow to the Mackem contingent.

Yet as the Sunderland manager admitted in his post match comments, his side has now effectively lost 10 points in the closing minutes of matches, a statistic that suggests flaws in the way they play rather than bad luck alone. To have lost so many points in this way means that whenever the Wearsiders find themselves clinging on late on in games a negative mindset can set in making it almost an inevitability that their opponents will score. Throughout the second half, Sunderland sat deeper and deeper, gifting their opponent’s possession far too cheaply and inviting them to attack. As the game moved into injury time the North East side sat so deep and would have been difficult for City not to score. Bruce has to find a way to stop his side doing this as if not, late goals will continue to eat into his side’s points tally. The three substitutes the Black Cats made saw attackers replaced by more defensive counterparts, the first – albeit – forced on Bruce by the injury to Jones. However, the final one, replacing Campbell with Phil Bardsley seemed defensively excessive. Campbell’s pace on the break could have been a real threat to the away side. A possible solution to being pressed back by your opponents is to make positive changes or keep attacking players in the game in order to press back.

This is a tactic that Bruce seems unaware of and he would do well to try it the next time Sunderland find themselves clinging on at the end of a game.

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