Draw number six and Sunderland are still looking for something to get excited about. A point away from home at Stoke City would normally be considered a great result but in a season where Sunderland have won just a solitary Premier League game it has failed to raise spirits on Wearside.
While it has been an underwhelming start at the Stadium of Light, to suggest there is something fundamentally wrong with Sunderland is harsh. A win over an inferior Middlesbrough team on Tuesday would place Sunderland within three games of a first major trophy in 40 years. While with a game in hand on every team above them a win over a poor Aston Villa team on Saturday could see the Black Cats in the top half for the first time.
The most frustrating aspect of Sunderland’s play has been how deep and how often Martin O’Neill’s men have been forced to defend and invite pressure. At times this approach has best suited the team, against a Liverpool team overly concerned with patient passing allowing their slow build up was probably the best approach. This mentality also may have helped greatly against a then, unbeaten Swansea, who are much more comfortable in possession than the current Sunderland outfit. But even in those two fixtures I felt a negative attitude hindered Sunderland. Not allowing full-backs to often venture beyond the half-way line while wanting both central midfielders always behind the ball, comes across as old-fashioned and greatly detrimental in attempting to create goal-scoring chances. Lack of confidence was brutally evident in drawing with West Ham. A goal up, the North East side sat back and allowed West Ham’s best passer, Mark Noble, among others the freedom to play and attack Sunderland at will. One instant change I’d like to see from O’Neill is greater freedom in attack and less negativity when out of possession. Having lots of possession at home shouldn’t be the culture shock it was for Sunderland against Newcastle.
Other than an overly negative approach the main thing which needs to change is the performance of some of Sunderland’s biggest stars. Stephane Sessegnon was rightfully dropped by his 60 year old manager and hopefully O’Neill will see the desired response from the Benin international on Tuesday. The 28 year old has endured a frustratingly miserable start to the season, which has exposed just how overly dependent Sunderland are on him. One of the Premier League’s most creative players a return to form against a team he tormented at the Riverside last year, could prove a turning point for not just Sessegnon but Sunderland.
Also recently admitting to not being fit enough or determined enough yet in a red and white shirt, now is the time for Adam Johnson to step up. A £10 million marquee signing the winger was expected to add creativity, goals and quality to Sunderland. So far Johnson has failed on all three fronts. While scapegoating a player who missed three game through injury, had little pre-season and also suffered a severe illness at the Etihad is harsh. The inspirational signing needs to start playing like the player who allowed Sunderland fans to believe a top eight finish wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility this year.
My point is there is little wrong with Sunderland and this could easily turn into a memorable season on Wearside, but in our sixth straight Premier League season, and with a decent amount of talent, it isn’t a lot to ask for more creativity. Sunderland also need the performance of their best players to improve to avoid a season of under-achievement.