Sixer’s Soapbox: apprehensive times as Newcastle highlight a lack of initiative

Looking beyond the disappointment of yet another failure to take three points off our nearest rivals on home soil, Pete Sixsmith sees a disturbing lack of initiative and quality from the boys in red and white. Judging by the grumblings of the fans leaving the Stadium of Light on Sunday, he is not alone. Here he presents his thoughts in his inimitable style.


As I move through my seventh decade, with the possibility of maybe one more, there are a few things I wish to see before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

World peace and an end to hunger and child poverty are near the top of the list. The return of a proper socialist government in Britain, where those who make a contribution to society take a fair share while those who leech off the rest of us are consigned to the nether regions. I would like to see The Kinks play a series of concerts and A Very Peculiar Practice shown again on TV.

But most of all, above everything else, I would like, really like, to see us give the Mags a good walloping at our ground.

In all the years I have followed Sunderland, I have seen it just once and that was in 1967 when we had hit a purple patch. Jim Baxter was sober for some of the time, Neil Martin was scoring goals for fun and a fresh faced youngster called Bobby Kerr had made a tremendous impact on the first team. He scored twice with George Mulhall getting the other and since that March day, when I was preparing (or not) for my O levels, I have not seen us send them home yelping and whining.

So Sunday should not have come as a real surprise. We have stuttered and stumbled through the first six games of the season, winning one and losing one and have never looked convincing.

The West Ham result was unfortunate in that it looked as if resolute defending and a little bit of luck had won the game for us and we went on to beat Wigan to get some momentum going.

It all crashed around our ears at Eastlands, where a far superior side demolished us without over exerting themselves and it was clear to many that there were problems that needed to be addressed.

Is it desirable to concede a stupid goal in the first five minutes? Is it necessary for us to give the ball away quite so freely? Seeing as we employ two wingers, could we actually use their pace to feed our decent centre forward? Can we grab a game in midfield and squeeze the life out of the opposition?

All of these are rhetorical questions as they perfectly describe what we did and did not do against what has to be said was a far superior Newcastle United side – and the hurt I have just suffered in writing those words is as intense as any I have ever felt.

McClean slipped in an area that had been watered before the kick off, (the same thing happened in the previous home game) allowing the ball to run to Ba. His shot was saved by Mignolet but Cabaye was quicker than any of our players and stroked it home. He stood unchallenged, nobody went to him and we were chasing the game from the third minute.

It got worse. Their midfield trio of Tiote, Ben Arfa and Cabaye swatted away the feeble challenge of Colback and Larsson and totally dominated the middle of the park. Solid defending kept them out and then we had a stroke of good fortune when Tiote, who had been awarded a free kick after Colback fouled him, crashed into Fletcher, three yards away from Martin Atkinson and off he went – a tackle that puts him in the Cattermole class for sheer stupidity.

Did it make any difference to the game? Not one jot. We huffed and puffed went sideways and backwards, gave the ball to them and never once put them under any pressure.

From Monsieur Salut at the ESPN Soccernet pages:

Forget tribal bluster. With 10 men as with 11, Newcastle moved better, had the mightily impressive Fabricio Coloccini to tame Fletcher, still crowded out Adam Johnson each time he got the ball and looked more likely to score again than to concede. ‘Really disappointing,’ wise friend (Sixer) texted at the interval. ‘We seem to have made no progress since last year.’ Given where Sunderland were a year ago, heading towards a relegation battle under Steve Bruce, that was a damning assessment.

Fletcher was willing but received hardly anything of any note and when the ball did get to him, he found Coloccini in outstanding form. His performance was the best individual show I have seen this season. Fortunately, he failed to last the whole game and the cramp that he suffered allowed us to snatch a point at the end.

I said before the game, to anyone who was prepared to listen to me, that we needed a good game from two of the Sessegnon, Johnson and McClean triumvirate. One of them would have done, to inject a bit of pace into what is a woefully pedestrian team and run at the likes of Simpson and Williamson and keep them on the back foot.

Not one of them obliged. Sessegnon was as poor as I have ever seen him, with plenty of pointless stepovers and flicks, but no telling balls through, no driving runs at the heart of the defence and no spectacular shots – in fact, no shots at all.

McClean has stopped running on to the ball and seems to think that all he has to do is give a shimmy and a shammy and the full back will collapse. The only time he used his pace was when Louis Saha came on and played the best pass of the match into the Irishman’s stride, allowing him to steam past Simpson and deliver a decent cross.

Johnson looks like an expensive luxury at the moment as he consistently struggles to get into the game. Granted, he was well marked today, but nobody else was able to take advantage of the gaps that might have been left as two or three Newcastle players blocked his progress.

The goal was fortunate in that O’Shea’s header was going wide before Ba popped up to knock it in. I suppose we deserved that piece of good fortune as we had plugged away and had not given up, but had Coloccini been on, I doubt that O’Shea would have had a free header. That it was the supremely annoying Taylor who lost him gave me a scintilla of satisfaction.

Twelve months on from the end of the Bruce period and how much progress have we made? Not much if this bitterly disappointing show is anything to go by. There is little pace and/or movement from the midfield or the full backs. Compare the rigidity and sheer torpor of our midfield with the fluidity and energy of theirs.

Look at how their defenders pass to fluorescent yellow shirts (yuk!!) rather than propel it forward in the general direction of the one forward we use. They are, at the moment, a far better side than we are in just about every department.

What is to be done? Well, let’s use the pace and intelligence of Saha a bit more. He deserves a start next week ahead of Sess who looks less like a mixture of Messi and Pele and more like a combination of Lemon and Cunnington.

Let’s break up the Larsson/Colback partnership and push Cattermole and Gardner there for the Stoke game and actually get hold of a game. Maybe we can push Vaughan in there or find a place for Meyler – but we need to do something or we will be slipping down among the dead men before Christmas.

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28 thoughts on “Sixer’s Soapbox: apprehensive times as Newcastle highlight a lack of initiative”

  1. A rather late reply but here goes.

    The messages above are very consistent and more or less on the button, but proposed solutions seem to be less clear than diagnosed problems.

    For what it is worth, I agree with the primary view that our difficulties arise from an under-performing midfield. I had hoped, along with many others, that Jack Colback would be the young inspiration in that department, but he clearly does not have the right mentality to control a game. However he is a decent player who has shown real ability at left back.

    McClean is currently struggling, and probably needs a period back at the drawing board to develop new ideas and tricks. In his place I would put Rose who looks more than capable of providing a strong left wing presence. I would put Colback behind him at left back.

    Larsson would have to be moved out of central midfield where he is currently completely lost. My two central midfielders would therefore be Cattermole and Meyler.

    On the right, I would persevere with Johnson who is after all a class player. Similarly with Sessegnon playing a little closer to Fletcher up front. We do not have an obvious replacement in that position, but Saha and Gardner would come into contention with me.

    Right back would be Bardsley.

    So, my selection for the Stoke game would be:

    Mignolet, Bardsley, O’Shea, Cuellar, Colback
    Johnson, Colback, Meyler, Rose
    Sessegnon (Gardner)

    Top priority in January or next summer would be to sign one or a pair of central midfielders with pace, skill and power (if only).

  2. Were you not there, Pete, to witness the power of Len Ashurst’s free kick and then Geordie Herd’s winner, after Taylor had given them the lead?

    That was a great night!

    Almost as good was when we walloped Norwich 7-1 (midweek), just a few days after them beating the mags 6-0 (IIRC), the previous Saturday.

    Going to school in Newcastle, following those games, was like heaven!


  3. I think if we’d beat Reading (which we probably would have done), then I reckon people here would not be so flustered because we would be 11th.
    For me, when the Bard comes back, Gardner will move into midfield.
    I still say:
    Mignolet, Bard, Cuellar, O Shea, Rose
    Cattermole, Gardner (or Vaughn), AJ, Larsson
    Sess, Fletch

    Gardner can score some goals but runs with his head down and is not better than Vaughn in terms of passing.
    If Aj and Sess come good (which they will), then we’re looking OK. But we’ve got to get more bods in the box. MON is primarily defensive though. We have to tweak something.

  4. If we had kept 11 (Tiote is rapidly turning in to our version of Clattermole) on the pitch I think we would have won by 2 or 3. Sunderland may be harder to beat than last season but I am afraid they are a poor side and miles behind the Toon in terms of squad and class. Colo was immense and Santon had Johnson in his pocket.

  5. It’s not entire focus on that but it’s there.

    Re Cattermole, I’m not suggesting we don’t create because of his absence but you need a player with presence in midfield as a platform for your creative players to create. Larsson and Colback is a CM partnership that can be cut through like butter.

  6. I find it surprising that Cattermole’s absence is seen as any reason for the lack of creativity from the middle of the field. He’s hardly Glenn Hoddle is he? Doesn’t create anything of note and still hasn’t scored.

    I’m looking forward to reading the Grant v Jack piece Goldy, as it’s a comparison which is well worth making and will hold my pipe on that until your article appears.

    • “I’m looking forward to reading the Grant v Jack piece Goldy”.

      I don’t think that it can be viewed in such a way, because (IMHO) they are, totally, different types of players.

      Cattermole has one role in the team – to win the ball and then pass to someone who can create.

      Colback, on the other hand, is NOT a ball winner and is expected to link between one who is and those who are more creative.

      All my opinions, of course, and others may disagree.

  7. Whilst Sess, AJ and McClean have all flattered to deceive thus far this season, Sunderland’s real Achilles heel lies in central midfield [partially caused by Cattermole’s absence]. Larsson does not have the required athleticism/pace to play in that physically demanding role and Colback contributes little in the way of goals, assists or attacking play and is not as good a player as Grant Leadbitter who now plies his trade in the Championship and used to score a few goals to boot . Against Newcastle yesterday my middle two would have been Meyler and Gardner who at the least would have competed physically against the effectively mobile Cabaye/Tiote central axis. I do not understand why Meyler has been so overlooked in Cattermole’s absence as he has been since an effective display at Stoke away last season [apart from a solid centre back display at MK Dons this season]. I think Cattermole and Gardner will be in this area against Stoke on Saturday, a difficult match that we need to try something different in. Only one loss in nine suggests we’re not as bad as some are quickly suggesting but certainly the flair players need to come to the fore, but to do that MON needs to tinker with his current tactical system.

    • Tom, there is a Colback/Leadbitter comparison coming up in something I’m writing now. This was his year to burst out that shell and he’s failing spectacularly.

  8. Is it some sort of curse Geoff? I really don’t know. We now have a striker who can get on the end of things but this season the service to the front man is even worse than last year.

    Going back to the original post. I would heartily endorse Pete’s comments and hopes for the future, with the exception of “A Very Peculiar Practice” which is something I have never seen so couldn’t comment.

    Regarding The Kinks, Pete. I have always likened them to Tottenham Hotspur, but perhaps a little bit like Sunderland. They were great (apparently) to those who witnessed them in their pomp back in the 60s. Most of us aren’t old enough to remember that far back, and we seem to be incredibly similar to Ray Davies at the closing of the Olympics, both creaking and croaky and no longer capable of what we once were.

  9. For no logical reason, despite changing personnel and seasons, some characteristics seem to stick with a club. Scoring and penetration seem to be inextricably linked with Sunderland. I think the last time we stepped out of this feature was in the days of Summerbee, Johnson, Quinn & Phillips – we always knew we would score.
    We now have a striker who can score – but once he is marked effectively, we are stuffed. Defensively, we seem OK, not great, but adequate.
    The weakness, in my Joe Public mind, is in the middle. Colback and Larsson are clearly not ball winning, box-to-box, goal scoring/creating central midfielders. Colback looks so much out of his depth and invariably turns back into his defence.
    We then fall into a trap – what aspiring game changing midfielders want to join a team that may well struggle in the lower reaches of the Premiership? Wish I had a solution instead of an obvious problem, but when you can’t penetrate MK Dons – something is clearly not right.

  10. I too, find it astonishing that Meyler is not getting the nod when Cattermole is out.

    Totally agree with everything that’s been said about getting Bardsley back in the team, and also the comments about Vaughan who is our most creative midfielder but is well down the pecking order. Larsson is there only because of his dead ball ability which seems remarkably lame compared to last season as well. Gardner back to midfield should also make a difference.

  11. McClean needs dropping for sure as his head seems messed up to me, but who to put in that slot? Rose is a winger by all accounts why not let him have a go he certainly was one of the few decent performers yesterday. But then we are short of a left back. Bardsley, when fit, can play quite happily there.

    Larsson is a slight luxury, Vaughan, who is better at passing, maybe gets the nod for me. But we cannot keep playing like this all season it WILL get better and as Chris says we have a solid foundation we just need Sess and Johnson to get moving and things will click

  12. Don’t disagree completely with Malcolm’s line-up, as long as the formation is 4-3-3, and not a 4-4-2 with Gardner or Vaughan pushed out wide. As I said yeasterday Johnson needs space to roam, he hasn’t got the direct pace to challenge a decent full-back and would be better picking up the ball and running at the heart of teams. Ultimately it’s down to MON, but our fairly insipid start to the season would suggest that something has to change, and just chopping and changing personnel won’t do it.

  13. Maybe I’m just more optimistic than most (which is unusual), but the way I see it, we’ve played 7 games, and played most of those games pretty badly, yet we’ve still only been beaten once. And that was by the reigning champions. If nothing else, we’re more resilient now than we have been in recent years. Turning us into a heavyweight premiership force is a masisve project, and making us hard to beat is a good first step (if not a pretty one). If we’re sat in mid-table by Christmas, then we’ve had a decent first half of the season. (If we’re struggling near the bottom, I’ll take it all back).

    As for the game itself, we looked bereft of ideas going forward. Such is the weight of the fixture, I think the early goal put the fear of God into them, and no-one seemed to want to push up in case they were caught. But at the other end, I don’t recall Mignolet having a particularly busy game – even before the sending off. (I watched with a Villa fan, and at half time, other than the goal and the sending off, he struggled to think of any other major chances for either side, save for Ba’s overhead kick, which came somewhat out of the blue). The sending off reduced their attacking threat, but they still saw a lot of the ball, but we were rarely troubled.

    I’m not trying to sound like I was happy with the performance, far from it, but I don’t think we were overrun as badly as some seem to suggest. The draw was thoroughly deserved. In the context of the game, we should have pressed harder for more, but in the grand scheme of things, a point is a point. Let’s take it, and hope the resiliance at the back breeds a midfield that is more confident in pushing forward to create chances. With any luck, by Christmas, we’ll look on this as a merely a solid, if unspectacular start to the season. I fear a lot of people think it’s as good as it’s going to get, I only hope they’re wrong. But maybe I am too optimistic.

    • The positives? Yes we are not easily beaten and yes the Mag’s chances were few but the worry is (and there is no originality of thought here) we seem bereft of ideas going forward.

      We needed a deflection off Ba to rescue a point – I saw no other real threat to Krul. Against Wigan Fletcher’s goal came because he was sharp enough to latch onto a McClean mishit.

      Draws are not really results that will progress the club and until the team shows more inventiveness when in possession that (and the odd bit of luck) is the best we can hope for.

      And as we all pointed out last season with Bruce in charge, the run didn’t start on the first day of this season – it goes all the way back to the second half of last. I’m still an O’Neill fan but I concur with Sixer – our lack of creativity is a real worry.

      • I can’t really argue with anything you’re saying. (I’m conveniently ignoring everything after the Everton cup game last season).
        But another positive, we’re still in the league cup for the first time since Jesus was a nipper. So that’s 1 loss in 9 games. If we can get past Boro again, I reckon we’ll all start to fancy that. I’ll prepare a note backtracking just in case we don’t though!!

  14. In the early days of MON’s tenure one of the encouraging aspects of the things he brought to the club was our ability to counterattack. He brought in McClean instead of Elmo and even without a prolific goalscorer we looked dangerous on the break.

    But for some time now the tactic has been to defend deep and keep possession. As many have said Jimmy Mac, Sess and AJ are just not creating enough opportunities and only Fletcher seems desperate to get in front of goal.

    Saha brought movement and it is time to start with him – he can always go off if he can’t last the full game and if he manages to score a goal or two, or make space for someone else then surely it is better to get the goals early, rather than wait for the last thirty minutes to see if he can make a difference. On Sunday he was the only one, other than Fletcher, moving off the ball, looking to drag players out of position.

    Against the Cloggies (Stoke City) I’d suggest to the manager, as I know he regularly visits the site because he writes to M. Salut every week, that we line up: Mignolet, Bardsley, Cuellar, O’Shea, Rose, Gardner, Vaughan, Cattermole, Johnson, Saha, Fletcher – with Cattermole refraining from the stupidity to which he is prone and him and his midfield colleagues looking to split the defence with forward passes, rather than the tippy tappy square and backwards ones we have seen too much of lately.

    And – as Pete also observes (see my comments elsewhere) turn off the bloody sprinklers at least an hour before kick off. It might not have prevented the goal on Sunday but had McClean stayed on his feet it might well have done.

    • Good call , except I would start with Meyler instead of Vaughan,just to add soem hiegt and strength in midfield agains Stoke. Vaughan, Sess and McLean could be our high impact subs.

    • I’d add to that, Malcolm, that in his first six games as manager O’Neill made a nice habit of making early subs, and they were plentiful. In fact winning four of those games came largely because of influence off the bench, Mclean v Blackburn, Gardner at QPR, Ji v City; Now we hardly ever see subs at all.
      As for our attackers, I’d suugest a big problem for them is they aren’t getting the ball enough as our whole game is based on the opposition having the ball, not us. I’m all for seeing O’Neill drop McLean, maybe Sess but I think people are expecting them to magic something up out of nothing. Our ‘style’of play is the most boring I’ve ever seen and won’t bring missing fans back, sadly.

  15. An excellent assessment of our current problems.

    Can we wait much longer for our creative triumverate of Sess, McLean and Johnson to find their form? Probably not, but I would suggest that Johnson given more time with the other two being relegated to the bench.

    I would also drop the uninspiring Colback and move Gardner into midfield and bring back Bardsley .

    I like Meyler and cannot understand why he does not get more playing time.In the asbsence of Cattermole on Sunday I felt he was the most suitable deputy.

    I would be interested to see how midfield ,Gardner Cattermole,Meyler, and Johnson would work with Saha and Fletcher up front.

      • I ‘d play Gardner on the right side of midfeld with Bardsley overlapping and Meyler providing the cover when the overlap is on. Not ideal I grant you but given that Sess and McLean are so out of form how long can MON wait for their form to return.

        At Stoke we will need to be physically strong all over the pitch . The inclusion of Meyler and Bardsley should help here.

    • The problems we could then face would be being overrun in midfield, with the two “upfront”, but I agree with its composition, going on what we have seen so far..

      Given the form of both Sess and McClean, this season, there would appear to be a strong case for dropping both.

      Immediate calls of blasphemy and that I should be burnt at the stake will follow!

      However, I think that playing Saha in the Sess role, behind Fletcher would, currently, be more beneficial than going 4-4-2.

      That way there would be a strong, aggressive midfield behind them + a goal threat!

      Maybe Sess is just getting too many “home comforts” and needs to send his family back to France – McCleans problems, though, would appear to be on another planet!

  16. “A mixture of Lemon and Cunnington”. Damning description if ever there was one.

    I said – to anyone who would listen to me – that if Larsson got a start in a two man central midfield we COULD NOT win this game. So it proved. A good central midfielder to play alongside Cattermole is of the utmost importance. It’s as necessary as Steven Fletcher’s transfer was.

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