It is becoming increasingly easy to predict what Sunderland will do as the Premier League season draws to a close. At home they somehow muster verve and energy and cause problems for even the top teams yet on their travels they simply can not win a game.
Steve Bruce started on Saturday’s game against West Ham with the same XI players that had taken apart Tottenham at the Stadium of Light the previous week. To be fair they did start brightly and Darren Bent was unlucky to be denied after a fine improvisational effort. However, the North East side soon began to look tired and lackadaisical, a sight all too familiar for the traveling red and white army. Carlton Cole constituted a definite threat and one that Bruce had apparently attempted to warn the team about during the interval: “There is no way we should lose the game, we’ve given a bad goal away after we’d talked about it at halftime” he said after the game. “For me, their only threat was Carlton Cole with a flick-on and somebody running through, so to give a goal away like that was poor.” The Black Cats did begin to look threatening after they had conceded but a dogged West Ham side clung on to move a step closer to survival.
The team selection hinted that Bruce will not simply pick players simply because of the name on the back of their shirts. Kenwyne Jones remained sidelined with Fraizer Campbell continuing in his natural strikers role and David Meyler once again kept Lorik Cana out of the side. In terms of the latter choice, Bruce would seem fully vindicated. Cana’s form has suffered in the second half of the season and he needs to stop picking up soft bookings in early parts of games for reckless challenges. Meyler has offered an improvement in the centre of midfield and seems to be more comfortable on the ball and offers more in the way of distribution than his Albanian counterpart. In a 4-4-2 formation it is vital to have at least one player who can carry the ball with confidence in the centre of the park and although Meyler is not the most creative player in the world, he offers more in that respect than Cana.
The non selection of Kenwyne Jones is a different matter however. The evidence suggests that the Sunderland manager is not one of the Trinadad and Tobago international’s biggest admirers and when recalling his clownish mis-kick against Spurs last week it is sometimes easy to see why. Bruce continues to court the big Schalke striker Kevin Kuranyi and may view him as a like for like replacement for Jones. It was not until the Hammers had gone in front that he was introduced and he failed to make much of an impact. Motivation seems to be a problem and Bruce has hinted in the past that he finds it difficult to understand what makes his big target man tick. When on form Jones is close to unplayable and during the same Tottenham game it should be remembered that his spectacular mis-fire was followed by a quite astonishing mazy dribble that took out three defenders. If Bruce can not get the best out of his striker he could well look to sell in the summer, but bringing in Kuranyi as a replacement would be a risky move. With motivation clearly a problem for the whole Sunderland side away from home, Bruce might well look at his own methods of instilling incentive into his team before he loses a striker whose goals were largely responsible for keeping the Black Cats in the Premier League over the two previous seasons.
In terms of their league positioning, the Mackem’s situation has altered very little. Eleven points above the relegation zone in 13th place with just four games to play it seems their Premier League status next season is surely assured. Their aspirations towards a top ten finish have taken a bit of a hit however as the three teams within three points above them now all have games in hand. A lower midtable finish would seem the most likely outcome then, which is a clear sign of progress and Sunderland fans will certainly not be used to having such a calm end of season. However, if the team continues to produce this sort of tentative away performance, next season may not come soon enough for the Mackem support.