Times are tough at the bottom. Two weeks ago Sunderland were on a high after thrashing a Newcastle side who dominated the first half of the derby. Then last week the Black Cats fell back down to Earth with a 6-2 humiliation at Everton.
After clawing their way back into the game to bring it back to 2-2, Sunderland capitulated and Everton sparkled. Lukaku ran riot, and Sunderland looked like a team of men who had never met before. Their pride and their defences crumbling. That three-at-the-back system Big Sam had devised to seem all southern and sophisticated to his new North-East family was thoroughly outdone.
But cats always land on their feet, don’t they? It certainly seems that way of late. Sunderland have been right in the mire in each of the last three seasons, ironically relying on the ‘dead cat bounce’ to help them out after sacking the manager and bring in new blood. There are only so many times you can do that before you get found out.
[ffc-gal cat=”sunderland” no=”5″]
Then again, maybe they’ll have nine lives….
Cat jokes aside, Sunderland need something to save them. They’re a team that seem to have a little bit of everything in the squad, and with the Premier League experience, they should have enough about them to stay up. That’s until you realise that moulding this particular group of players into one coherent group is an unenviable task.
And it’s the task of Sam Allardyce at the moment. Probably one of the few men I’d trust to do that just at the moment – tactical madness of last weekend aside.
As a fan of flowing football, Big Sam hardly floats my boat. But when you’re right up against it in a relegation battle, with a disparate team like Sunderland have, he’s a good bet to get you out of it.
He’s been in charge for only three Premier League games, so it’s clearly not his team yet. Which is the best excuse ever for getting spanked 6-2 at Goodison Park. But he does have another one too. Clearly his defence was the problem. Scoring twice in a Premier League away game is usually enough for at least a point. Scoring twice in any Premier League game is probably usually enough for a win. But that’s only if you have a defence!
Last weekend, Allardyce didn’t, in both senses of the phrase. He didn’t have a working defence that could deal with Everton’s alarmingly pacey breaks. But he didn’t have his regular centre back pairing either.
It was a case of make do and mend, but sometimes sticking your finger in the dam just isn’t enough to prevent the flood.
But what is encouraging for Sunderland is that the defence is awful. It’s the defence that’s the problem. What’s nice is that you can pinpoint it. When trying to pinpoint Aston Villa’s problems, for example, I’m tempted to just say ‘defence, midfield and attack. Oh, and they need a new keeper too.’
With Sunderland we know where the problems lie, and they have a man who can fix them. It just seems like a matter of getting the defence organised, and leaving it up to the fairly gifted players they have up the pitch.
In football, everyone wants to be a striker, but defending is the easy part. It’s putting the ball in net that’s usually hard. When defences are well marshalled, when you’re up against a compact, structured defence who play two banks of four, it’s really hard to orchestrate the moves you need to break them down. But getting that solid base that stops the other team from scoring is the easier part.
Big Sam has a gift in knowing how to do that, he does the simple things well.
After three seasons of three different managers pulling in different directions, buying players that fit different systems and totally failing to get the club to fulfil its potential, it’s time to come back to basics. And when you do that you have to do it well.
The Black Cats don’t need luck to get them out of this mess. They just need some Big Sam organisation.