The Season So Far
Sunderland have had the most Sunderland season imaginable. They have spent a fair bit of money on some exciting players, remained an abject rabble for most of the season, shown absolutely no unity as a team and appeared perilously close to falling through the trap door into the Championship, only for a late-season change of manager and the utter incompetence of their relegation rivals to bail them out at the last.
It’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from Sunderland in the last few years, and one suspects they will keep providing exactly this for many years to come. No matter how much money Ellis Short throws at the club, it will all be wasted on past-it, disinterested or unprofessional players by useless managers. Most other Premier League sides will be cannier, better prepared and simply better than Sunderland.
They have only won seven times all season, and despite recording two derby wins over Newcastle, there’s pretty much nothing in terms of memories or great moments for supporters to hark back to in future years. Frankly, it’s no fun at all for the fans and they can’t be blamed for having stayed away in such great numbers for so long. Ex-chairman Niall Quinn went to great lengths to entice them back to the Stadium of Light, but economic factors combined with the team’s complete misery mean that attendances have remained and will remain low.
Perhaps the most annoying thing is that, amidst all the deadwood and dross, there are talented players at good ages at Sunderland – they just never perform to their potential. Rumours of a culture of rampant unprofessionalism and partying away from the field persist, and whoever is in charge for next season will have to work miracles to reverse years and years of mismanagement and cultural decay. They probably won’t manage it.
Since succeeding the hapless Gus Poyet, current manager Dick Advocaat has been playing an extremely reactive and counterattacking 4-3-3, whenever possible fielding three centre-forwards to give the rest of the team plenty to aim at when clearing its lines. He has focused on stopping the endless flow of goals flying in at the other end of the pitch and with a fair degree of success: the Black Cats are unbeaten in five and have kept three clean sheets in a row.
However, to say that they’ve been playing well would be something of an overstatement: Sunderland have still given away a hell of a lot of shots on goal – Arsenal recorded 28 on Wednesday night, for example – and they have relied to an extent on opponents missing the ample amount of chances they create, so perhaps Advocaat doesn’t deserve as much credit as Lady Luck.
The focus seems very much to be on keeping a good shape and stopping the opponents playing their way through the midfield. They’re not especially keen to win the ball back – for a team that recorded 26% of possession in its last game, a recorded total of 20 tackles really isn’t impressive – preferring instead to position themselves so that their opponents run the ball down blind alleys and waste their own time.
For such an extreme counterattacking setup to work, transitions from defence to attack have to be are pretty spot on and Sunderland’s are basically awful: their midfield isn’t dynamic enough to support the three forwards and their defenders aren’t good enough at playing the first pass to give the forwards much of any use. It’s clearly a stopgap tactic and they won’t play like this next season.
At the moment, their key strength is defensive solidity. Goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon has been in inspired form, but he picked up an injury against Arsenal and is unavailable for this game. Centre-back Sebástian Coates has been dominant in the air, which always helps any defence. Yellow-card machine Lee Cattermole has shown what for him counts as impressive discipline and smart positional play at the heart of the midfield.
It’s hard to explain how, but lately Sunderland have been doing really well at making the other team miss all of their easy chances. This will be of key importance if they’re to take anything away from Stamford Bridge.
Even though they’ve done enough to secure survival, they’re just basically awful. Their attack is toothless, their midfield unimposing and severely limited, their sense of togetherness non-existent. Their current system relies on the centre-forwards working much harder than they should have to in areas of the pitch miles from the opposition goal, so in the rare event that the Black Cats actually attack, their goalscorers are nowhere near the goal.
This is basically a friendly and so, having seen Sunderland’s players down tools whenever possible for the last few years, it’s perfectly possible that they won’t even try to win this game. Certain players will already be thinking about their night out in West London after the match.
The error-prone Vito Mannone will take the place of the injured Pantilimon in the Sunderland goal, while injuries to Liam Bridcutt and Jordi Gómez and worries over a possible suspension for Cattermole mean that Advocaat has a selection headache in midfield. Danny Graham is a doubt, so Connor Wickham could come in to play alongside Jermain Defoe and Steven Fletcher.
José Mourinho should name a strong starting line-up, but will probably be without Eden Hazard after the winger’s recent dental surgery. Expect plenty of young talent to be on the bench and to get game time if Sunderland fold as expected.
If the first goal goes in early, the floodgates will open. 3-0 Chelsea.