Malcolm Dawson writes: With £10 tickets available via season card holders, a healthy crowd of over 41,515 turned up for this one. The majority, Pete Sixsmith included, were hopeful of a turnaround in fortunes and took their seats looking forward to an opportunity for the Lads to finally stamp their authority on a game there for the taking. Certainly the Villa fans I spoke to before the match expected to lose and had travelled up more in hope than expectation. An early goal ruled out for offside provided false optimism and it wasn’t long before normal service was resumed. Sixer takes up the story………….
Well, there’s another opportunity to kick start the season gone. Continuing the motor cycling analogies, the cylinders are all furred up, the steering is shot and the wheels are about to fall off.
Harsh? I don’t think so.
This was a game that we needed to win or at least not lose. As Gabriel Agbonlahor bundled the ball over the line 40,000 supporters realised that was that; a win was about as likely as Chelsea doing anything with dignity and grace.
The goal came from a full back putting in a deep cross which eluded Bardsley at the far post. Standing there, unmarked, was the very impressive Christian Benteke, whose header back across the goal was met by the onrushing Agbonlahor. That was it, 0-1 and game over.
Look at how they scored. A deep cross from the full back – something we rarely do. Our crossing was atrocious all afternoon, with Johnson and Bardsley the chief culprits.
A centre forward unmarked at the far post. Fletcher is rarely in this position because the approach work is so one paced that when a ball is knocked in, he is tightly marked. Vlaar and Clark defended as well as they needed to and were never once put under any real pressure.
The header back across goal, met by the onrushing Agbonlahor. Our second forward, be it the ever so disappointing Sessegnon or Saha, are rarely in position to pick up any knock downs because they play so deep. Plus we never get the ball into the box quickly enough.
We were playing a team short on confidence but who had what we do not – pace and the ability to carry the ball into space and then spread it. When Villa broke with the impressive Stephen Ireland (not words that go naturally together) there was support from the full backs and his midfield colleagues, Westwood and Bannan.
They were willing to support and move the ball on, and as we desperately pushed for an equaliser, that never looked likely to come, they were able to take advantage of the gaps that began to appear.
By the end of the game we were “playing” something that looked like 2-6-2 which is a good combination for steam engine wheel arrangements, but football wise one that shows how desperate we had become. And desperation rarely gives goals in the super charged atmosphere of the Premier League.
Once again, players were found lacking when they needed to perform. Once again, our tactical plan was limited and easy to counter. Two sides below us in the rankings have taken advantage of our ponderous style in successive home games and home games have to be won if interest is to be maintained. How many of those with £10 tickets yesterday, would be tempted to buy an 11 game season card or even come back for another tenner a game deal?
Eleven months ago, we appointed the manager that the vast majority of Sunderland fans wanted. For three months, we were a breath of fresh air, playing controlled football and skipping up the league.
Last season faded away as players became mentally and physically tired, but the addition of Fletcher and Johnson was supposed to freshen it up. At the moment, Johnson is rivalling Torre Andre Flo as the most expensive flop in the club’s history and questions are being asked about whether he really wants to be at Sunderland or were we the only option he had when Manchester City decided that they could get along nicely without him.
The real worry though is the chronic lack of movement and pace in the side. Cattermole had an excellent game yesterday and showed that he is an effective player and captain. But he is not a player who makes things happen and we have nobody who can do that.
He had Craig Gardner alongside him yesterday, a move that was greeted with approval by people much more knowledgeable about the game than me. He failed dismally to make any impression on the game and is now in the same box as Vaughan and Saha as players who have not taken opportunities when presented with them and who should be thinking about where their future lies.
Eventually Jack Colback joined Cattermole in midfield, moving from the left back position he had taken from Danny Rose, dropped for “tactical reasons” according to Nick Barnes. The snort of derision from Gary Bennett when his colleague revealed that says more than a thousand words and probably marks a turning point in the excellent Bennett’s attitude towards O’Neill.
We now have two away games at Everton and Fulham. These two are standing in the upper reaches of the league table, with excellent home records and with players who can create opportunities and score goals. They fought out an exhilarating and exciting 2-2 draw at Craven Cottage yesterday. Moyes and Jol must be quietly optimistic about their chances of picking up three points as they mount a mid season push for Europe .
On the other hand, Martin O’Neill must be wondering whether he made the right decision to come back to work. What he does to arrest this worrying and potentially catastrophic slide is beyond me.