Saturday, November 3, 2012
Sunderland lurch towards crisis
Kristan Heneage, Stadium of Light
If Sunderland are not in crisis they can at least see the signpost advertising its impending arrival after a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa left the club with just one league win in seventeen attempts.
• Reaction: Lambert backs O'Neill
Prior to the game, Paul Lambert had cited Martin O'Neill as one of the best managers he worked under during his playing career, meaning it should come as little surprise at how similar their styles of management are, right down to their decision to be clad in a club tracksuit. Both pacing the very edge of their technical area, vocal and filled with emotion in every action, it's clear their time together at Celtic left an imprint on Lambert, the Scot still choosing to refer to O'Neill as 'the gaffer'.
Still very much in a period of transition - arguably stemming from the high spending days of O'Neill - Villa's side was a blend of youth and experience, their pace in attack looking a constant threat against a Sunderland backline deficient in such an asset.
Christian Benteke was the figurehead of that attack and the former Standard Liege striker seemed keen to prove that Romelu Lukaku is not the only promising young target man to emerge from the Belgian Pro League recently. His strong hold up play provides exactly the kind of platform to build on that Darren Bent has so often been castigated for lacking. Even playing a part in the goal, it was his header down to Gabriel Agbonlahor that led to Villa's goal early inside the second half - from a man Lambert dubbed 'a revelation' when asked after the match.
In contrast to Villa, a lot has been made of the counter-attacking style Sunderland thrived under in the early throes of O'Neill's tenure, and it was shades of that which saw them earn perhaps their best chance of the first half. A Sessegnon break led to the ball being with Lee Cattermole on the edge of the box but his attempt at a precise effort sailed just wide of goal.
It was enough to rouse the home fans who were eager for their side to put the ball in the net, the quality of play before it being inconsequential. However Sunderland's movement, or lack thereof, was once again proving an issue. Every hesitation in attack was met by objection from the home fans, perhaps realising their side's lethargic build up would garner little penetration.
When Villa's goal did come the ground was silenced. The support that had largely stayed onside for 57 minutes now changed to disillusionment at the lack of desire and inventiveness their side were displaying, arguably a justified response.
In counsel with one of his coaches on the hour mark, O'Neill ignored requests from the away end for a wave, much to their dissatisfaction. From the resulting corner, a penalty claim that was promptly waved away by referee Michael Jones, the kind of evidence fans will often cite as proof that it is not to be their day, and a decision O'Neill said afterwards he was disappointed not to get.
On 65 minutes, O'Neill brought on winger James McClean and Louis Saha. Far from a tactical surprise the substitution was a lamented trademark of his time in the Midlands with Villa, and one that did little to excite the home crowd. By now the game was beginning to bare parallels with Sunderland's midweek cup tie against Middlesbrough - their eagerness to get back into the game leaving the kind of space strikers like Agbonlahor and Benteke could thrive in.
Just like Boro, Villa were beginning to control the game, their diminutive central midfield duo of Barry Bannan and Ashley Westwood showing far more composure than you might expect from a pair so young. For the latter of the two, it was an impressive first start for the club given his meteoric rise from Crewe Alexandra, a view Lambert concurred with after the game: "I thought he was outstanding, he's got the great art of not giving it away. Him [Westwood] and Barry Bannan were exceptional."
With ten minutes of the game left, the home fans underwent a spontaneous chorus in a bid to liven up their team. The energy returned but still the craft was missing. O'Neill had candidly said on Tuesday night he had no right to demand fans come to the Stadium Of Light - perhaps a subtle acceptance that his side have simply not been good enough. With Fraizer Campbell now also supplementing the attack, Sunderland's formation became difficult to track as players no longer inhabited their natural positions.
On a day when some home fans might have longed for the days of Darren Bent, the news the former Sunderland striker had not travelled north failed to garner the shock and surprise it once did - perhaps a testament to how out of favour he is.
Despite this performance, O'Neill still received the backing of his former captain, who said: "Don't doubt this man." The words of a slightly partisan Lambert after the game were sadly not shared by the patrons of the Stadium Of Light, many of whom are now questioning if the Irishman is indeed the man to lead them forward.