Last Wednesday I went to the Everyman theatre to see Bright Phoenix, a play about a group of misfit kids who become misfit adults. With an Everyman play like that I didn’t know what to expect. Whatever I thought, it wasn’t what I got …
Then I went up to the Stadium of Light, hoping for a bright phoenix to arise from the ashes of Southampton. Like Wednesday, I didn’t know what to expect. Like Wednesday, whatever I thought, it wasn’t what I got. There were misfits, perhaps, but was the performance a Farce, a Tragedy, or, as you’ve already seen from Malcolm’s supersub seven, a Comedy of Errors? This was a game where we could have settled nerves and kept up our point-per-game average. Instead, we gifted three points to our opponents and set ourselves up for a scary visit to South London.
It’s almost 14 months since I was up for last season’s Arsenal game. With a new manager and eight changes to the starting eleven there’s been a lot to accommodate. In some ways we’re better, in others not so, and in the end we lost by the same margin as last year. So have we improved or not? It’s difficult to work out, bearing in mind that Arsenal, too, are a different team. For what it’s worth, here’s what I think.
We do have some better players but they haven’t gelled this season. There’s a lack of communication so passes go astray and people move into the wrong positions. We lose possession, the ball comes back at us quickly, and the back four are put under pressure.
Our forwards are poor. We do move the ball forward down the wings but when we put it into the middle they can’t make use of it. The opposition recovers and attacks. The ball comes back at us quickly and the back four are put under pressure.
There’s no-one doing the holding role that Ki had last year. I’m not Ki’s biggest fan, and I’m not knocking Catts, Seb or Rodwell, but none of them seem able to collect a pass and hold the ball long enough to give the back four a breather and let others get set. Their link up play through the middle seems to go wrong, the ball comes back at us quickly, and the back four are put under pressure.
By now you should be getting the message. We need to better protect the back four and the keeper and give them time and space. It’s no good Don Vito giving the ball out only for it to come back to him seconds later. Sometimes, as we saw at the end of the game, it’s not good to give him the ball at all.
Last year I thought Altidore and Fletch were going to form a good partnership. They moved into space, found each other and set up chances. They really did have Arsenal worried. This season, this game, they were nothing like that. How could they be when they didn’t play together? Not that I think it would have mattered. Fletch ran into people more than into space and Jozy, when he came on, showed why we should be looking to sell him. He provided light relief to the crowd but none to anyone on the pitch. Between them came our great hope, Whickham, who provided a petulant display that made me wonder how he stayed on the field. None of them, not one of the three, did anything of note.
Maybe you could blame it on poor service from that midfield of Catts, Larsson and Rodwell. Possibly, although I thought they were ok and none actually had a bad game. Catts did a lot to break up attacks, Seb ran his socks off and Rodwell did get forward. The trouble was all of this was done in a disjointed way and attacks through the middle went nowhere; Giaccherini is sorely missed. And, deep down, it really is not just poor service. We need a different kind of attacker or we need Fletch to be his narky, bullying, skilful former self and upset the back line, with one more player (is two too much to hope for?) on form when that ball comes through from midfield and he’s got the opposition panicky.
We also tried to move the ball down the wings and if we had had an on-form, all-out scorer our enterprise might have paid off. Jonno worked hard. Buckley did a lot, but it all came to nothing and the opposition came back at us, time and time again.
Arsenal can do what we can’t, hold the ball and build attacks patiently, without things breaking down. They can move the ball through the middle, down the wings, across the park. They are a good side, possibly not as good as last season, but good nonetheless.
Yet, despite their strengths and our weaknesses, we held them. Comfortably, I thought. We restricted them to a couple of long range shots and a couple of in-box attempts that we blotted out with deep defending. The back four may have been pressured but they coped well with Arsenal, although Don Vito did have a couple of dicey moments, and I never felt much concern, not until Wes Brown made that all too casual swing at the ball when he had a myriad of alternatives and no pressure whatsoever.
And that all too casual swing did for us. Arsenal continued to press, of course, but we held firm, despite another couple of Wes Brown lapses, and we took the game to them in the second half, to no avail. They remained composed and clever enough to see us off, despite our best efforts. Indeed, as we pressed forward they wasted a couple of counterattacks before a final error from Don Vito led to the fastest emptying of a ground I’ve ever seen.
We might never have won this game but we never should have lost it. That’s the worrying thought. We did lose it, and we shouldn’t have. We can’t afford to keep making errors. Nor, I’m afraid, can we continue to carry dead wood up front.
At half time my good friend Alex regaled me with tales of the North West corner in the days of Niall Quinn and Superkev. Ellis Short, we know you read this. Please, please, please, pay heed to Alex. Buy a decent scorer this Christmas. Find someone of SuperKev’s calibre. It will make all the difference, to the North West corner and to North East England.
Still time to vote for Salut! Sunderland in the Football Blogging Awards: see https://safc.blog/2014/09/football-blogging-awards-make-your-yes-vote-count-for-salut-sunderland/for details