The Season So Far
As in seemingly every other Sunderland season in recent memory, 2015-16 was one long and embarrassing slog characterised by repeated, gargantuan incompetence. As usual, they played like the rag-tag ensemble of misfits and miscreants that they were. As usual, they changed manager halfway through the season and used the new man’s organisational skills and passion for football as their Plan A, neither realising nor caring that motivation isn’t a like-for-like substitute for talent. As usual, they miraculously escaped relegation at the end of it all and retained their Premier League place.
As in seemingly every other Sunderland season in recent memory, 2016-17 has so far been one long and embarrassing slog characterised by repeated, gargantuan incompetence. As usual, they’ve played like the rag-tag ensemble of misfits and miscreants that they are. As usual, they’ve talked about changing manager halfway through the season and using a new man’s organisational skills and passion for football as their Plan A, neither realising nor caring that motivation isn’t a like-for-like substitute for talent. As usual, they’re picking up form and look like miraculously escaping relegation at the end of it all and retaining their Premier League place.
The Season Ahead
See above. We all know how Sunderland seasons work and how this is going to pan out. The only surprise would be if David Moyes didn’t get the chop at some point – not because Moyes is bad, per se, but simply because firing the manager and hiring some other idiot to stand on the sideline and look shocked at how awful the team is is a key part of all Sunderland seasons.
After two months of the season, Sunderland seemed not to have any tactics. However, things have picked up of late, the strategy is becoming clearer and Moyes’ work on the training ground seems to be paying off.
In recent weeks, Sunderland have played a reactive 4-1-3-2 and in the truest of Moyes traditions, focused on “making it hard for the opposition”. The idea is to sit deep, close space, use long balls to rapidly advance up the pitch, win set pieces and then try to steal one with a sucker punch. The wide players and strikers have licence to play, but the guys in the middle simply have to work hard, throw their bodies in front of the ball, and kick it up the other end. Literal lump Victor Anichebe receives the ball with his back to goal, holds it up and lays it off for Jermain Defoe to shoot. Alternatively, Anichebe turns and lets a snapshot fly, or Sunderland create some kind of pinball scenario in the opposition box and Defoe has a snapshot. It’s all very rudimentary.
Unfortunately for Moyes, this doesn’t really work at the top level any more. The fearsome Scot punched above his weight playing like this for over a decade in a division which, frankly, hadn’t caught up with the rest of the world. Now that the Premier League has taken huge steps forward in the last few years, Moyes looks like an idiot. He looked like an idiot at Manchester United and he looked like an even bigger one when he went to Spain and preached a totally different kind of underdog football to the one that Real Sociedad’s players knew worked. Now he looks like an idiot at Sunderland, regardless of the recent upturn.
Their only real strength is that they know what they’re supposed to be doing and so the doubt, second-guessing and general haplessness closely associated with all recent headless chicken Sunderland teams is less common here.
Besides that, Jermain Defoe is a pretty reliable finisher, Seb Larsson knows what to do with a dead ball and former Chelsea left-back Patrick Van Aanholt does a pretty fine Marcelo impression.
So far, so Sunderland: they’ve only taken 9.9 shots per game and they’ve only put 2.7 of those on target, giving them very little chance to actually score goals. At the other end, they’ve allowed an average of 19 shots per game, with 6 on target, making it as easy for their opposition to score goals as it is difficult for them.
One reason that this has happened (again) is that they simply can’t keep the ball: they’ve had an average of 41.5% possession, the third lowest average in the league; their figure of 71.9% pass completion is truly embarrassing. Only one player to have played a significant number of minutes – Didier Ndong – has completed more than 80% of his passes.
All this would be just about supportable if they worked hard and knew how to defend, but they don’t. They don’t do much to win the ball back, making only 15.9 tackles per game – the league’s third lowest number – and a middling 15.8 interceptions per game. Furthermore, block fewer passes per game than Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham, who all average roughly 20% more possession.
Also, Papy Djilobodji gets regular minutes in this team. Yes, that Papy Djilobodji.
Injuries and suspensions, along with the temptation to match Chelsea’s back three, make Sunderland’s line-up difficult to anticipate. We should expect the defence and holding midfielder to keep their places, while Anichebe and Defoe are also nailed on.
As for Chelsea, you’d think this would be a good game to rotate and rest some key individuals going into the busy Christmas period, but you never know.
For some reason Chelsea never seem to find it as easy as they should here. Nonetheless, they’re so much better than Sunderland that it’s unreal. Another tight 2-1 win should be expected, despite the gulf in quality.