Amid all the gloom that has descended over the collective support base of Sunderland AFC, the one sentence that some will have found hardest to stomach after the narrow escape from a fifth successive defeat against Hull was Gus Poyet’s statement, in his post-match e-mail reproduced here: “I think we played well.”
Some of us would have taken the 1-1 draw at Hull if offered it beforehand, but for no better reason than that the rotten form and uninspiring tactics of recent weeks, all season with the exception of a couple of games if we’re honest, made another defeat much more likely.
Forget all those upbeat Guess the Score predictions before each Sunderland game. That’s not even blind faith, just loyalty combined with a reluctance to wager against your own. Defeats are what we have come to expect and the only consolation is that some expected defeats (along with a lot of games we should have been winning) have ended in draws.
Poyet was a very good and often exciting footballer. He must know, at the bottom of his heart, how dishearteningly turgid Sunderland’s style of play is. Not boring in the old-fashioned “1-0 to the Arsenal” sense, but both deadly dull and ineffective. Poyet needs only to look at the Premier League table to work out where his style of play, and his calibre of players, has taken the club: fifth bottom with a record reading P28 W4 D14 L10 F23 A39 GD-16 Pts26. It is not the worst record; Villa have scored fewer, the bottom pair Burnley and Leicester have also managed only four wins and only eight teams, all in the top 10, have been statistically harder to beat.
But despite his praise for the Hull performance – canny psychology or staggering complacency? – he must also know current strategy is not working. Lose or draw to Villa in the game and only continuing dire results for QPR and the bottom two will save Sunderland, and many will say another survival would be ill-deserved. If forced at gunpoint to bet honestly on the outcome, my money would not be on a home win.
That SAFC clawed a point from the match at Hull owed a lot to the home side’s wastefulness after taking the lead and nothing to that wretched starting formation with Catts, Bridcutt, Rodwell and Larsson crowding the midfield, the back four none too sure and Defoe and Graham reduced to chasing long punts and rare-to-invisible moments of creativity. What was the point of hoofing high balls to Defoe? He’s hardly the size of Niall Quinn.
Yes, things got better after we’d weathered a storm that seemed likely to see the Hull lead doubled or trebled. Yes, Mike Dean got the free kick and booking that led to the single City goal hopelessly wrong, since it was a determined but fair tackle by Wes Brown on Elmo. But Rodwell’s headed equaliser was, as Rob Hutchison put it in his ratings, the card that got us out of jail.
And that improvement, with Patrick van Aanholt at last on to bomb down the left flank, and Reveillere pressing forward more tellingly with Alvarez on the right, came far too late.
We must bow to Poyet’s greater knowledge of fitness levels and other factors. Maybe Alvarez was, as he has argued to the Sunderland Echo, not up to a full 90. But did that apply to PvA, too? And if PvA sometimes looks alarmingly vulnerable in his defensive duties, is there not merit in Jeremy Robson’s idea, expressed on these pages post-Hull, of relieving him of them, playing him as a winger and putting Larsson or someone else at left-back?
“I made a decision and I stand by it,” says Poyet of his selection.
His self-assurance deserves respect. But when he begins preparations for Villa, on a high after beating WBA and in with a chance of sending morale higher by beating the same team in the FA Cup quarterfinals this weekend, he must accept in return that we, or many of us, will fear the worst if we start with a similar shape, negative without being remotely secure at the back. There is absolutely no point in alienating this fabulous bunch of fans by being boring failures.