Few football clubs have had starts harder to gauge than Sunderland.
Martin O’Neill’s men have picked up seven points from their opening five games and are one of only three unbeaten Premier League teams; the other two are Chelsea and Manchester City.
So with four draws and just a solitary win last time out against Wigan Athletic it is still extremely difficult to know how far the Black Cats have progressed since finishing 13th last season.
Scoring goals were the North East outfit’s Achilles heel last year, but summer additions Steven Fletcher and Adam Johnson were roped in to improve that aspect at the Stadium of Light. Fletcher has hit the ground running netting all five league goals scored by the Wearsiders. While a groin injury picked up on international duty has restricted Johnson to just two starts in the league this term.
However goal scoring and dominating matches is still something Sunderland have barely done since O’Neill’s arrival. The excellent Ulsterman installed a feel-good factor and confidence around the Stadium of Light which had been missing since a home defeat to Newcastle in late August 2011. But emphasis on shape and counter attacking under the 60 year old still raise questions about whether Sunderland are playing the kind of football that allows them to score numerous goals, and beat the so-called lesser teams in the division.
Saturday’s fixture against Wigan was truly the first game to test this theory of whether Sunderland could conjure enough chances and play fluidly enough to dominate and beat a team with fewer resources. The Black Cats did triumph but not in a way which solved these under-lying issues. Athletic retained possession better than Sunderland something the Wearsiders have looked helpless at doing this term, and a now over-turned red card for Jordi Gomes, preceded the matches only goal. An early wonder-save from Simon Mignolet was also required to en route to a tough victory.
In my opinion Sunderland look like a team that will struggle to win enough matches to truly get in and amongst the top eight and possibly even the top ten. Dominating matches remains a big ask for a team so dependent on organisation and resilience and I don’t see that changing any time soon. This is perhaps a premature statement to make with Sunderland’s two most creative player’s both still finding their feet in the 2012/2013 season. Johnson remains lacking in match-fitness due to his groin problem and could yet prove inspirational to the North East club. While last season’s star player Stephane Sessegnon has struggled after injuries meant he was unable to play any part in the Black Cats pre-season. Hopefully once these two start firing on all cylinders Sunderland can boost a deadly attacking quartet, with Johnson and Sessegnon hopefully developing an understanding with James McClean and Fletcher.
While progressing up an extremely competitive Premier League table will prove problematic and may expose the weaknesses of O’Neill’s developing team, cup competitions offer other areas for potential success at the Stadium of Light. Through to the last 16 of the league cup and facing winnable home draw against Middlesbrough, fans may eye this competition as Sunderland’s best prospect of major triumph this term. The Wearsider’s manager has already lifted the competition’s trophy four times, twice as a player and twice as a manager. The Irishman also reached the league cup final as recently as 2010 with Aston Villa. In the club’s favour also is feeling on their day they can beat anyone in the country. Victories over Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City under O’Neill will breed confidence for any future big game cup matches. Last year’s run and deflation at losing out two Everton in FA Cup quarter final replay should also motivate the Premier League side.