It may not seem like a spectacular achievement, particularly when considering the money spent at the beginning of the season, but the Mackems’ three points against Burnley took them into the carefree heights of mathematical safety. With three games still to play, this is a definite the sign that – slowly but surely – the club is making progress.
Boring, midtable obscurity awaits the Black Cats then, but this will come as a great relief to their followers, used to tense last-day-of-the-season affairs with portable radios pressed close to ears. Their end of season form is mirroring the win, lose, win, lose pattern that characterised their early season encounters and regular wins at home have provided the boost up the table that proves Steve Bruce has led the club another small step in the right direction. A new vigor and energy has entered the Wearsiders’ play at home and this was particularly apparent during the first half at the weekend when the home side found themselves two goals up and pressing for more. In a way, it is unfortunate the season has to end in just three games time, as after such a long spell without a league win, the habit of victory has reinvigorated the side and the crowd who are enjoying football at the Stadium of Light once more. A new sense of optimism is apparent which will surely be doing season ticket sales no harm at all and Bruce needs to harness this to ensure it is still there at the beginning of next season for his side to hit the ground running and push for a fabled place in the Europa League.
A notable aspect of the Sunderland side that is finishing the season is how young it is. David Meyler began in central midfield with Jordan Henderson and Fraizer Campbell on the right-wing, Steed Malbranque providing the experience in the left sided berth. Bruce has set a precedent for picking players on form, and Campbell in particular has continued to impress, rewarding his manager’s faith by scoring the first and setting up the second of Sunderland’s goals. A further point is just how attacking the Black Cat’s line-up is, particularly at home. Alan Hutton and Kieran Richardson started the game as two attacking full-backs with Malbranque and Campbell as out-and-out wingers supporting Kenwyne Jones and Darren Bent up-front. In centre midfield Bruce has tended to opt for two holding players but against Burnley he played Henderson – a naturally attacking player – alongside Meyler. This positive approach produced the required result, with the home side a constant threat during the first half. Leading 2-0 at half time they could well have had more: “We should have been out of sight. It would have been a bit unjust had they got anything from it.” said Bruce after the game, referring to the Claret’s late surge at the end which was the result of a familiar problem.
During the second half, Burnley clawed their way back into the game, making for a nervy finish to the contest. John Mensah had played well in central defence during the first half but had to be substituted at the break, replaced by Anton Ferdinand. This has been a move Bruce has regularly been forced into making with his big Ghanaian centre-half usually unable to last a full game. The affect of this regular change is twofold. The impact of losing such an impressive presence in the back-line is often immediately felt, Mensah is probably Sunderland’s best defender and an automatic starter if available.
The second problem this seems to cause is its impact on Michael Turner, who rarely looks as comfortable alongside other defensive partners. Mensah’s ability to be completely unphased in possession is of immeasurable value to the Wearsiders’ back-line and Turner – the player who is perhaps most suspect with the ball – clearly needs a calming presence alongside him to allow him to focus on those attributes he has been bought to the club for. The Sunderland manager needs a regular back four as the constant chopping and changing does have a major impact on the side’s results. If he is to sign Mensah at the end of the season he will need to be sure of the defender’s fitness, but the realist might point out that a fully fit John Mensah, capable of lasting a whole season, would surely be playing in the Champions League.