Next up with a midterm report is Malcolm Dawson, a regular name here and chairman of the Heart of England branch of the SAFC Supporters’ Association. Malcolm, pictured at a branch function with Chris Herriott, the founder (right, and the excellent Gary Bennett, presents his Sunderland Christmas shopping list in case Amazon can overcome weather problems and deliver …
So here we are in the run up to Christmas with our club sitting sixth in the Premiership and if the weather around Bloomfield Road had allowed the Seasiders to continue their bright start by beating Tottenham, we could have been fifth.
Of course, had Welbeck’s strike against Bolton hit the inside of the post and gone in, or had Darren Bent found the target with one of three efforts he might have put away on another day, we would have been fifth. But let’s not get greedy. And let’s not get carried away.
Before the season kicked off most of us were optimistic that a top 10 finish was in our grasp.
After encouraging early season results against the teams regarded as “the big clubs”, some of us raised our expectations. I have been saying for a while now that I think we can finish seventh and I’ll stick with that.
If my forecast proves to be correct, then that will represent progress and a successful season. But so will 8th, 9th or 10th place – based on pre-season objectives. That’s not to say we shouldn’t raise the bar and start checking our passports, but it is a plea for realism. This is the most competitive season this league has seen since its re-branding. Four teams battling it out for the top spot as opposed to two or less and not a great deal between the other sixteen.
So shouldn’t we enjoy the success we can see our team achieving? Of course we should – after all we have experienced plenty of low points in previous Premier League campaigns – but as Steve Bruce has reiterated the first aim is to make Sunderland an established Premier League side. A top six finish and European nights will be a bonus this year.
So for my personal observations of the season so far; the good the bad and the ugly in no particular order.
I have used the term consistently inconsistent before and that for me sums up the performances of the team. The display against Chelsea ranks as one of the best Sunderland performances that I have witnessed (albeit just on TV) at this level. In some of the others – Baggies and Maggies spring to mind – we have seen abysmal football from our team.
Against Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United the players showed great effort and application and deserved more. The games against Birmingham and Wigan were disappointing and one has to think Cattermole’s stupidity cost us four points there.
Despite the early season 4-5-1 formation bringing us a good set of results I felt we were too negative and whilst we weren’t losing that often there were too many draws and not enough wins in the games leading up to the Sid James’ Park debacle.
Early doors I could see the logic. I was concerned about the lack of goal scorers, other than Darren Bent and saw this as a weakness in the squad. Voicing this encouraged some contributors to the comments sections to label me as a pessimist and a whingeing tart – my favourite!
My concerns were valid however but now with Asamoah Gyan and the ever improving Welbeck things seem much brighter. Hopefully a fit and fully recovered Frazier Campbell will also still be able to contribute something when needed.
Before the win over Stoke, there were those who doubted that Danny Welbeck brought anything to our team.
We’ll never underestimate the power of Salut! Sunderland because since that chastising he has been a revelation. The change in formation, which may have been planned or may have been in response to Bent’s injury, has allowed him to flourish.
Things are brighter. Our resilience and ability to grind out results, gaining three points where in the past we might have settled for one or fewer (Man City and Bolton are cases in point) has improved. Our ball retention, passing and movement can be of the highest order. Some of Bruce’s signings have proved very astute. Onuoha, Welbeck, Elmohamady, Bramble, Gyan – all capable of top drawer performances and all assets to the squad. Onuoha has more than compensated for the loss of Alan Hutton back to Spurs and with the current shortage of centre backs is proving his worth across the back four.
Thankfully we haven’t been reduced to bringing Nyron, M’Voto or Kilgallon back yet.
A rejuvenated Bardsley’s displays have allowed him to find his niche on the left hand side of the back four which in turn has given the manager options to utilise Richardson’s pace in midfield.
So all is looking rosy(ish). Who knows what the transfer window may bring. But defensive crisis aside, I still feel there are areas we need to tighten up and improve if the team is to maintain its form after the crackers and the wishbone have been pulled. So here is my wish list:
* The forwards and midfield continue to press high up the pitch forcing errors in the opponent’s half. Too often (Everton and Bolton to name just two examples) we start off controlling the game and end up defending desperately as the game goes on. A continuation of 4-4-2 with at least two from DB, AG and DW on the pitch at any one time.
* More penetration from midfield with Henderson, Richardson, Malbranque, Cattermole etc threatening to score more often.
* Better distribution from the back four and the keeper. How often, when under no pressure, is the ball passed back (to Gordon especially) who hoofs it first time over the half way line? How often do those hoofs actually result in meaningful possession? Hardly any! Count them. Let’s play it from the back and through the midfield Brucey to maintain possession.
* More penetration from dead ball situations whether corners or free kicks.
Better luck with injuries. (At least a largish squad has allowed us more leeway than some of those clubs around us.)
* Lee Cattermole thinking about his challenges and referees not being too quick to book him for minor tussles which Gerrard, Terry, Neville etc seem to get away with.
So to sum up:
A good season so far with a few too many points lost that could have been won (Wolves, Birmingham) but some won where none might have been (Man City). Some wonderfully entertaining games and some dire performances. Bigger numbers in the win column than the away one to show we are certainly moving in the right direction.
The game against the Mags next month could well show us how far this squad has come – they must have a point or three to prove but with my feet firmly on the ground I’ll stick with seventh place come May.
Ha’way the Lads.