The Season So Far
As in seemingly every other Sunderland season in recent memory, this has been one long and embarrassing slog characterised by gargantuan incompetence. As usual, they’ve played like the rag-tag ensemble of misfits and miscreants that they are. As usual, they’ve changed manager halfway through the season and they’re using 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’ll probably escape relegation at the end of it all and retain their Premier League place, only to do exactly the same thing next year.
Another new host of depressing summer signings will arrive, promise much and deliver little, another manager will get sacked, and the long-suffering Black Cats fans will have nothing to cheer about until another bizarre and inexplicable late-season run of victories saves their skin, at which point they’ll all go insane. Sunderland’s consistency is hard not to admire: they’re like some kind of freakishly useless and even-more-miserable Arsenal.
The Last Few Games
Sam Allardyce, pictured below, has his work cut out in the last few games. They’re as close to descending into the Championship as ever, and their only hopes are 1. the game in hand they have over Newcastle and 2. that Newcastle keep being Newcastle so that as little work is required as possible to complete another great escape.
Presumably, if the Black Cats escape the drop again, the British media’s rotating cast of Proper Football Men will all be quick to credit Allardyce – who, like Tony Pulis, has become renowned as football’s equivalent of a horse whisperer for relegation-threatened giants – regardless of the fact that he hasn’t done that good a job at the Stadium of Light at all. C’est la vie.
Let’s not dwell on this, lest everyone gets vomit all over their keyboards.
As ever, Allardyce’s big idea is to flood the middle of the pitch, keep it submerged under a pile of furious and ferociously physical foul-merchants, and then try really hard not to lose. It makes for fascinating football matches, obviously. The attacking strategy is even better: essentially, they wait until they fluke one in from a set-piece, having smacked the ball 60 yards down the pitch at a particularly opportune moment and semi-deliberately caught their opponents off-guard. A key part of this attacking strategy is putting people who might score goals in primarily defensive roles, so former Chelsea striker Fabio Borini now plays as a sort of budget Dirk Kuyt on the right flank.
Riveting. Let’s move on.
I don’t want to give credit to Allardyce if I can help it, so don’t read the below as an endorsement of his style or anything. Anyway:
For a side that only has an average possession figure of 43.5% and spends far too much of its time chasing speculative punts down the pitch, Sunderland get a lot of shots on goal. Their 391 total shots figure is higher than Man Utd’s, and the Red Devils have a possession average of 55.5%. This is really, really depressing. Sunderland have had 121 shots on target and 213 shots from inside their opponents’ box: not marquee numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but comfortably better than other relegation fighters.
As with all Allardyce teams, they’re physically imposing, good in the air and far from afraid to bully teams out of games. As well as that, they have pacey players adept at making the colossal bursts down the pitch that all reactive, long-ball teams require to achieve some level of variation and avoid becoming predictable. DeAndre Yedlin and Patrick Van Aanholt are both suspect defensively, but threatening going forward, while Wahbi Khazri’s set-piece delivery could cause big problems for Chelsea.
Given that defensive solidity and home form are supposed certainties for Allardyce teams, Sunderland fans could be forgiven for wondering when these are going to arrive. They’re usually almost hilariously easy to make chances against, partly because their full-backs aren’t really that defensively inclined but more because the centre-backs are plain bad, there are no good goalkeepers at the club and the midfield is full of players with a habit of charging out of position and trying to break someone in half.
The total of 514 shots against is the Premier League’s fourth highest figure, while no team has faced more shots on target than Sunderland’s 200 and only Newcastle have allowed more shots from inside their own box than Sunderland’s 300. Simply put, you can’t be that open and not end up in a relegation battle. Despite Allardyce’s recent and concerted efforts to shore things up, Chelsea shouldn’t struggle to win the midfield battle or get the ball into goalscoring positions.
Both teams have looked to field settled XIs of late. Given the importance of Sunderland’s task, it would be a surprise if they were to change things now. Given the lack of f**ks given by Chelsea, we shouldn’t expect anything out of the ordinary.
Sam Allardyce loves a good draw against a big team that he can sell to the media as evidence of his managerial genius, and I doubt anyone at Chelsea really cares about this game, so I’m saying 1-1.