Sunderland are fast becoming the team of 2013 which is embroiled in the relegation scrap despite on paper having ‘too many good players to go down’.
Sunday’s match against fellow ‘looking over their shoulders’ side Norwich was a massive statement of the mindset of Martin O’Neill’s players ahead of the last eight games of the season.
Norwich dominated the opening exchanges and deservedly went a goal up through Wes Hoolahan, who celebrated St Patrick’s Day by nodding in from a position even Irishmen up and down the country could have finished even after the previous night’s festivities. After a disastrous mistake from Michael Turner, who looked shaky all afternoon, Norwich goalkeeper Mark Bunn was controversially sent off as he charged out of his area to prevent Danny Graham rolling the back pass into the net. The ball seemed to brush Bunn’s arm, but it was a harsh red card as the majority of the ball came off his torso, and in any case didn’t seem deliberate handball. Sunderland huffed and puffed but never looked like scoring for the entire hour they had an extra man – their only goal came from a dubious penalty awarded, and third choice keeper at Carrow Road Lee Camp barely made a save all afternoon. Indeed, Grant Holt should have won the game late on, but his touch was as heavy as he appears to be when sent through on goal.
All in all, Sunderland had a great chance to gain a vital three points against 10-men, but lacked spark, creativity and confidence. They lie 15th in the Premier League, only four points off the relegation zone. Black Cats fans (who were virtually silent on Sunday) must be fearful for their survival. Confidence is drained, their defence (containing two attack minded midfielders) lacks organisation, and if Steven Fletcher doesn’t score, they generally don’t either. Coupled with the teams below them continuously picking up points in recent weeks, and Martin O’Neill has a lot of problems ahead.
Here are some bare facts. At this crucial stage of the season, Sunderland have the second-worst home form in the league (where home form is often crucial as a ‘fortress’ to safety), have THE worst form of ANYONE in the league (that limp point against Norwich their second out of a possible 18), constantly play two often attack minded midfielders at full back (Vaughan, Gardner, Rose, Colback and Larsson have all been put in the square pegs this season). Finally, and most worryingly of all, Sunderland have the most horrific last eight games in their season. Man Utd (h), Chelsea (a), Newcastle (tough derby game a), Everton (h), Villa (a), Stoke (h), Southampton (h), Spurs (a) is not pretty reading. On a good day, Sunderland may take around nine points, leaving them on the magic 40 point mark. However in their current form, it wouldn’t be entirely unrealistic to see them take four points for the rest of the season, leaving them with 35 points and surely on the brink. Games against Villa, Southampton and Stoke seem particularly crucial, but by then confidence could be shattered beyond repair.
The players haven’t been good enough, but Martin O’Neill has to take a lot of the blame. He does not seem to be able to motivate or organise the players any more. Villa fans have often pondered O’Neill’s last season in charge at the club – they seemed one-dimensional and lacking motivation even with talent such as James Milner, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and a (young, more explosive) Gabby Agbonlahor at the ready. Sunderland are leaking goals, and appear to lack organisation and stability at the back, particularly on set-pieces. Again, the players have to take responsibility, but stark contrast was offered on Saturday in Norwich’s defensive display and hard work. Such defensive profligacy wouldn’t be such a problem - except Sunderland don’t score goals (except the odd Steven Fletcher hot streak). Another angle of the O’Neill critics are his signings. No manager gets every signing correct, but Danny Graham (1 in 3 for Swansea is decent, but hardly the hot streak needed to dig Sunderland out of a mess) for £5 million in January seemed extortionate at the time – and has proved so far with 0 goals and some good chances missed in Wearside. Adam Johnson was an expensive acquisition at £10 million (although O’Neill has been unlucky Johnson has been so off-colour this season), Louis Saha pointless with his injury record, and Alfred N Diaye at £3 million when the money could have been spent shoring up the defence. Fletcher has undoubtedly been a hit, as has Carlos Cuellar, but O Neill’s prioritisation of attacking signings seemed bizarrely weighted, even at the closing of the summer transfer window. ‘MON’ above all needs to restore confidence, however the players and fans don’t seem entire behind him, or worse still up for the relegation fight that clearly awaits them.
Too good to go down? We have heard that before from teams better than Sunderland. The ground is slipping away fast, just like their survival chances.