Sunderland are playing badly.

Four draws and a slightly fortunate win against Wigan Athletic masked this, but after showing a real lack of invention against Newcastle United and taking a beating at the hands of the Premier League champions, the team’s failings can no longer be ignored.

One real area of concern for Black Cats fans is the failings of their best players. Last year Stephane Sessegnon shone above all on Wearside, displaying a level of guile and creativity rarely seen outside the top four clubs. But this year he has been anonymous, ineffective and at times lazy, the Benin international was hauled off after 64 minutes during the Wear-Tyne derby and if anything, was lucky to last that long.

Early claims of a lack of match-fitness bought the 28-year-old time with both the fans and manager, but now in mid-October the time for excuses is over. Rightly rewarded prior to the season with a new lucrative contract, perhaps Sessegnon has become complacent on Wearside; Martin O’Neill may be keen to drop the diminutive forward to teach him a valuable lesson.

Hype and excitement gathered at the Stadium of Light when news broke of Adam Johnson’s arrival, after all the England international was a real marquee signing with Sunderland fending off Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur to secure his signature. But the former Middlesbrough man has yet to reach the high standards expected of someone signed from the Premier League champions.

A decent performance against Wigan Athletic and a couple of assists in the Capital One Cup against Morecambe are a summary of his achievements so far. Johnson has been injured and suffered badly with illness against his former club, but fit and healthy taking on Newcastle United, in the biggest game yet for his new club, fans expected more. The 25-year-old was doubled up on brilliantly by Davide Santon and Jonas Gutierrez especially in the first half, but as the game progressed and the Toon Army tired, Johnson’s quality never shone through and like Sessegnon, he was substituted.

Any team would struggle if their two best players were playing poorly, especially when there’s a large gulf between those two and Sunderland’s next best performer. Manchester City needed Joe Hart to bail them out against Borussia Dortmund and a key reason why they struggled was the poor performance of both David Silva and Yaya Toure, their two greatest talents. Chelsea are unlikely to be anywhere near as effective if Juan Mata and Eden Hazard are off their game.

But to blame just Johnson and Sessegnon would be unfair – James McClean has been highly disappointing and others have failed to step up to the late but more importantly, so has the manager.

Much has been made of the lack of chances created and goals scored this year by Sunderland and while Sunderland’s top creators’ inept performances is partly responsible, so is the manager. Negativity and organisation have become synonymous with Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland this year. While a tough set of fixtures also defined this approach to an extent, it seemed the Black Cats suffered a culture shock playing against a ten-man Newcastle and dominating possession.

On top of nerves, expectation and the difficulty of playing against a well-drilled defence, lack of experience at keeping possession and dominating teams also impacted on how poorly Sunderland played when on the attack against the Magpies. A negative attitude and unwilling attack definitely impacted on Sunderland’s last minute sacrifice at West Ham where Sunderland looked like the newly promoted side giving Mark Noble and the Hammers’ other dangerous passers too much time and respect.

Another disappointment in the way the Ulsterman has drilled Sunderland this season, is the lack of freedom footballers have been allowed. Sunday’s derby was the only time this season we’ve seen central midfielders go beyond the ball when Sunderland were in possession. It was also the only match full-backs have ventured often into the opponent’s half regularly and the only match I can recall when the defenders actually went beyond the wingers in attack.

If Sunderland are to make an impact in the Premier League this season, not only must key players improve but also the management must improve. It is paramount the Black Cats taste victory against either Stoke City or Aston Villa, while advancing to the last eight of the Capital One Cup. Redemption is imperative after looking so inferior to their most bitter rivals.

Let me know your thoughts on Sunderland this season on Twitter: @jimmylowson

If any Sunderland fans are heading to the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night, then don’t forget to download the FREE Screach App and vote for your ‘Man of the Match’

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