It is pointless to say this is the Big One. Every game Sunderland play, probably for the rest of the season, threatens to be a big one unless we find ourselves in an irredeemable position – or, and now I am dreaming, safe in midtable after an extraordinary winning run – early in the new year.
Let’s just say WBA away is or could be a defining moment in the reign of Sam Allardyce. SAFC are in a mess and there is only so much time left to extricate us from it if relegation is not to become the foregone conclusion most pundits – and increasingly our Who are You? interviewees – think it is.
So what team, from what we have available should the big man send out at the Hawthorns? Am I right in assuming he cannot play Jeremain Lens because of the red card vs West Ham but can call on John O’Shea since his was in an international?
This is how I described the choices facing Sam in my usual review for ESPN (see the full piece at http://www.espnfc.com/club/sunderland/366/blog/post/2664339/sam-allardyce-needs-an-early-win-at-sunderland …
Veteran defenders John O’Shea and Wes Brown, who has been unused so far this season, may not be the central defence of Sunderland’s future but in the immediate crisis (with the team second bottom and winless), there does not seem a sounder pairing at Allardyce’s disposal.
Even if Allardyce goes with that pair, there is still an alarming vulnerability on the flanks. With the manager unable to bring in recruits until January, he can do little more than drum into his full backs the need for to be on top of defensive duties before they even think of marauding upfield.
And protecting the goal starts ahead of the back four. Lee Cattermole and Yann M’Vila, when on form and disciplined, can make strong contributions in midfield, breaking up attacks and getting the ball to forward players. But Cattermole, in particular, has shown what a liability he can be when he shows neither quality.
The injury to Ola Toivonen when playing for Sweden may open the way for his compatriot, Sebastian Larsson, to return to the side.
Larsson’s great industry makes him a classic Allardyce player. His free kicks are not as lethal as they once were but his relative lack of Premier playing time this season has not only been a mystery, but may also be a part of the club’s current struggles.
Perhaps winning player-of-the-season awards has become a poisoned chalice at Sunderland. Larsson deservedly took the accolade last season but he has subsequently suffered rather as Vito Mannone, Phil Bardsley and Danny Collins did before him.
Up front, Allardyce is pondering whether to pair Jermain Defoe and Steven Fletcher, the latter a picture of pride after a second hat trick for Scotland, if only against Gibraltar. He does not dismiss 4-4-2 as unworkable in modern football but realises it is a risky formation for Sunderland to use against all but a handful of Premier League teams.
“If the other eight players can cope behind a Fletcher and Defoe partnership, then it’s a possibility,” he said this week. “If they can’t cope, then it might mean that Fletcher and Defoe score, but the opposition score three.”
So yes, I would start with Brown and O’Shea, if available, in central defence. And I’d bring back Seb but stick cautiously with a 4-5-1 or similar, trying to ensure one point while hoping for three. Save the gung-ho heroics for a week on Sunday.
So, from me, something like this:
Pantilimon; Yedlin, Brown, O’Shea, Jones; Cattermole, M’Vila, Rodwell, Larsson, Defoe; Borini. With Johnson, Watmore and Fletcher on the bench (surely Fletch must be feeling confident after his latest Scotland hat trick).
But what do you think?
* the WBA v SAFC prize Guess the Score