Marcus Procopio has graced these pages before. Being based in Perth (I think that’s the Australian one) it could be said he has taken a distant view. Distant or not, it’s certainly far-reaching. He begins with an overview of the season then moves to some individual performances before giving what might be the solution to Sunderland’s problems.
And he does it in his own inimitable way:
Here we go again
At the beginning of this season and the last few seasons, I’ve kept saying to myself that we’ve finally turned the corner. I would typically convince myself that common sense is finally prevailing, that we’ve learnt from the past, some better names are in (Rodwell and Alvarez this season), the rubbish is out (too many to name) and that the manager looks like he knows what he’s doing. Surely, improved performance is an inevitability? I mean, how hard can it be to do better than nearly getting relegated?
(Sound of crickets chirping).
Except for the now customary end of season sugar hit, this time facilitated by Dick Advocaat (bless him), the familiar train wreck that has typified our last few seasons unfolded yet again this season.
Simply put, our team performances were diabolical. Not since the latter stages of Martin O’Neill’s reign have we played such uninspiring and unproductive football. Some might call it “counter attacking”, “patient” or “defensive”. For me, it was simply a case of getting dominated.
This season’s dead canary in the coal mine was our side’s new habit of passing the ball to literally nobody – a clear sign that the manager’s message wasn’t getting through (whatever that message was). That said, I must concede that this was something of an improvement on last season’s habit of passing to the opposition. Baby steps I suppose. However, if the repeated passing to Milko represented the expired canary, then the 31 total league goals (our worst since McCarthy 2005-06) was the rigor mortised rhinoceros.
Yet again, our manager proved to be out of his depth at Premier League level and incapable of pulling the right strings to adapt to situations – and had to be sacked without ever completing a full season from start to finish. Yet again our transfer policy was left seriously wanting (plenty more on that coming below) and, yet again, our club’s overall common sense left a lot to be desired.
All of this may seem harsh, but how many more dates with the relegation zone do we have to go on before we suddenly find out that she’s carrying our child?
So sit down, make yourself comfortable and let’s go through it all. Together. Yes, this may be painful, but we have to put in the work. It is only then that we can truly heal.
I swear I’m a positive guy
Ever the optimist, I found myself still scribbling down the following notes at the end of the mid-season transfer window on 31 January 2015:
While results have been far from fantastic so far this season, I think we need to remember that we’ve had a viciously harsh first half schedule to the season – and come out of it alive – and that our squad is no longer a laughing stock. I expect us to pull away from the bottom 3 and end up in 12th this season. If it weren’t for injuries to Giaccherini, Cattermole, Alvarez and Van Aanholt, I think it would have been a different story.
Backing up my opinion was my rock solid table of how much better our squad now looked compared to the previous season:
|February 2015 (Poyet)||2013/14 Season (Di Canio/Poyet)|
|Pants and Mannone||Mannone|
|Ba and Mavrias loaned out||The Ba, Mavrias, N’Diaye and Vaughan pupu platter|
|Common sense||The Scocco, Cabral, Ustari and Karlsson pupu platter deluxe|
At the time, we were sitting in 14th place. Surely it wasn’t too outlandish to expect to get a little bit better against a relatively easier schedule? (Naturally, I say this with the customary respect to our “easier” opponents, several of which handily outplayed us).
The second half of the season
If you want to know where our season went to shreds, it was here. Instead of pulling things together, the second half of our season was festooned with the following results at home:
• Hull 1-3
• QPR 0-2
• Aston Villa 0-4
• Crystal Palace 1-4
All up, that’s zero points and a 2-13 for/against home record against teams we should have done far better against.
I’m not sure whether it was after the 4-0 capitulation to Villa or the 4-1 Palace smashing that my hopes went from a “grim enthusiasm” to “grief stricken”.
It seems like our boys aren’t happy until they’ve taken up residence in the relegation zone with no apparent way out and destroyed all of our hopes. This season the lads managed to achieve this after 33 games with an away draw to Stoke. The final five games would be against Southampton, Everton, Leicester, Arsenal and Chelsea.
Of course, we managed to sort things out with a game to spare. Before the Arsenal game (with our safety not quite yet secured), Wenger was at his snide and prophetic best:
“They always find the resources to get out of relegation.”
(You can feel the disdain in his voice as he’s saying it).
However, unlike the great escape of the previous season, there was little euphoria this time around for me. Just relief and a realisation that after nine seasons, our club still cannot not call itself an established Premier League team.
All up, I still think that our squad is reasonably ok and would not advocate an overhaul. However, contrary to my optimistic mid-season views above (did you notice that I thought we were demonstrating common sense at the time?), there were glaring holes and weaknesses which were ruthlessly exploited by our opponents.
As I undertook the post-mortem examination on our defence, midfield and attack, it became pretty clear how we ended up the way we did:
Again, our goal keeper was great. Perhaps it’s all the in-game practice. This season, it was Pantilimon – he was fantastic overall, with his leadership, calmness, shot stopping and aerial ability standing out for me. He’s definitely a keeper (pun intended).
As for the rest, the following exclusively leaked extracts from a Sunderland FC senior management diary sum things up best:
31 August 2014 (end of summer transfer window):
Comments: surely we’re already better than at least three of QPR, Burnley, Leicester, Hull, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Stoke, West Ham and Newcastle? Aren’t we? We don’t really need to invest much in defence to stay ahead of three of them do we?
Conclusion: O’Shea and Brown waving their Zimmer frames around should be good enough in defence for another season. A cheapie loan of Coates and a 1 million flyer on a wing back should do the trick.
*(Good cop says: while he made a few brainless and costly mistakes in defence, van Aanholt was a decent buy at left back and we sorely missed his attacking ability when he was injured).
18 October 2014 (8-0 loss to Southampton):
Comments: uh oh, better stick in an annual leave form. Poyet seems to be muttering to himself in Uruguayan. Our Uruguayan translation department says he is saying something like “just another 11 games until the next transfer window, just another 11 games”.
Conclusion: we need a 35-year-old free agent right back right away.
23 October 2014 (signing of Reveillere):
Comments: he’s not quite 35 yet, but he is a living free agent right back that wants to join us and this is the best we could do after five days of football manager scouting and Googling.
Conclusions: He’s not the 35-year-old we wanted, but close enough. Get him in. He should stop the goals single handed.
*Good cop says: to be fair, in the 16 league games that he played, Reveillere was very decent – FOR A RIGHT BACK.
31 January 2015 (end of mid-season window):
Comments: we’ve lost four of our last five games and we’re sitting in 16th. I knew we were better than at least three other teams!!!
Conclusions: we can easily ride out the season without any change in defence. Brown’s Zimmer frame may need to be upgraded to an electric wheelchair, but that’s about it.
1 February 2015 (one day after transfer window closes):
Comments: Poyet seems to be muttering more stuff in Uruguayan. Our translation team has said it would rather not translate.
Conclusions: if he keeps up the muttering, sack him.
You know you have midfield problems when:
• Your former England international who cost you 10 million pounds and is arguably your best attacking threat has a “situation” which is visibly affecting his on field performance.
• Your former Italy international who cost you around 6.5 million pounds plays only eight games (six off the bench) due to injury.
• Your rail thin Argentina international – who rumour has it you’re committed to buy for around 8 million pounds – plays only 13 games (eight off the bench) due to injury.
• You’ve liberated another 10 million pounds on another former England international who managed to give you only 23 league appearances (six off the bench) and never quite gets into a groove all season.
• Your most influential, but card and injury happy, central midfielder – who has his own off field issues and can barely scrape together 25 league appearances each season – appears to be the only thing keeping your defence together.
*For the record: Cattermole managed 28 appearances this season, a personal best in his six Sunderland seasons.
• Seb Larsson is your most reliable central midfielder and fans’ player of the year.
For those keeping count: yes, points two, three and four amount to about 24.5 million pounds for 44 games (20 off the bench) of football this season.
But our midfield was the least of our worries.
Our leading goal scorers this season were Wickham and Fletcher with 5 (with Fletcher’s fifth coming in the last game against Chelsea in a meaningless game).
Put it this way: it took Jermain Defoe (bless him for joining) a little less than half a season to rack up four.
How about this: Nicklas Bendtner was our top scorer in 2011-12 with eight. Yes, even he could do better.
Or this: the 31 league goals we scored this season was our lowest total since getting relegated in 2005-06 (26 goals), when the likes of LeTallec, Lawrence and Whitehead were rattling the back of the net for us (three each).
But wait, there’s more: last season (2013-14), our strikers collectively couldn’t hit the back side of a barn (Wickham five, Fletcher three, Altidore one), our top scorer was a winger (Johnson – eight) and our second top scorer was an on-loan striker used as a left winger (Borini – seven). So guess what management’s response was to start this season? Go on, guess …
NOTHING! That’s right, a stone cold, bo diddley squat, “we don’t have a scoring problem” nothing!!!
Sorry, sorry, I let my emotions get the better of me there. To be fair to senior management, we did actually do the following:
• Excessively flatulate around for the entire transfer window trying to sign Borini permanently for 14 million pounds or get him back on loan – even though he publicly indicated at all times that he had NO INTENTION OF COMING BACK TO US AND WOULD RATHER SIT IN THE LIVERPOOL SAUNA ROOM THAN PLAY FOOTBALL FOR ANYONE OTHER THAN LIVERPOOL.
• Decide to have no plan B realistically capable of implementation (because if we did, it would, you know, have been implemented).
• Move Connor Wickham full time to the left wing/forward position previously occupied by Borini, even though Wickham is a target man forward and has dial up internet pace for left sided purposes. You could just see the opposition’s right back get out their deck chair and pina coladas each game.
• Crank out Jozy Altidore up front for another 11 games, even though he clearly could not score goals in the Premier League (one in 42 for us, one in 28 for Hull and two in 70 overall).
• Give Fletcher another 29 games to show that he still can’t score enough goals for us (five in 29).
And here I was saying we did nothing. No we did something all right. We started with a moribund attack, took out the second leading scorer and said, voila – here is your 2014-15 Sunderland FC forward line!!! It’s like we didn’t even bother to polish the turd or wrap it in foil.
By the time the second half of the season came along, Danny Graham was brought back from witness protection to keep Defoe company up front.
Just imagine if we weren’t able to convince Toronto FC to give us Defoe for Altidore…
Ok, ok, I’ll stop now. I can feel the pain is too much to bear.
For a while it appeared that Poyet was a decent up and coming manager that could take us to where we needed to go. While his first season with us didn’t knock my socks off, he got the job done and appeared to be improving.
At first, I liked his attempt to install more possession play rather than the incessant hoofing that symbolised the end of the O’Neill era. However, in the end, Poyet became too slavish to it and there was no longer any directness to our attacking. He also refused or failed to adapt when it was clear that the patient possession strategy wasn’t working.
I also initially liked that Poyet did not play our best team on paper by default. It not only kept the players hungry, but it also showed we were thinking about the best line-up for the opposition we were facing at the time. However, by the end, it became frustrating that he almost never picked our best available side on paper.
It all started coming to a head in February 2015, when fans and pundits started seriously questioning Poyet’s methods and tactics (the 2-0 cup defeat to Bradford stands out). When some suggested that we commit more up front (and perhaps play some 4-4-2 at home) and throw in some long ball, Poyet scoffed, suggesting that anyone proposing such a scheme was uneducated in modern Premier League football. At this point, it was clear that Poyet had lost the confidence of the supporters (and probably also the players). Aside from the lack of attacking quality on paper, the paltry 31 league goals we scored was really no surprise given Poyet’s preferred strategy.
This season’s messiah
Having one of these come along each season has been like death and taxes for us. This year it was Dick Advocaat. Last season it was Poyet. The season before that it was di Canio. The season before that it was O’Neill. You get the picture.
There was no doubt that a degree of our improvement came from the freshness associated with simply changing our manager. However, that undersells the job done by Advocaat – a manager with a pedigree that I don’t think we’ve seen around our club in decades. O’Neill and di Canio ended up being short term sugar hits. Poyet, to his credit, ground it out for nearly a whole season and played his part in engineering our great escape – before sadly being found wanting this season.
None of these things appear to apply to Advocaat. Almost from the moment he came in he had everyone buying into his plan. Yes, his first three games in charge produced very mixed results (1-0 loss to West Ham, 1-0 win over Newcastle and the 4-1 capitulation to Palace). The following draw to Stoke even put us in the relegation zone. However, Advocaat never wavered or even looked like he had any intention of blaming anyone or anything. He simply got to work and brought everyone on the team along with him.
And then the needed results came along. Yes, there was some luck in those results. But isn’t it funny how fortune often seems to favour the prepared?
Whether or not he stays remains to be seen. If we don’t or can’t keep him, then we should be looking someone more level headed like Advocaat, rather than the hot heads that we seem to have gone for lately, as wisely indicated by Martin Keown (of all people!).
What to make of it all
For me, you know you’ve endured a really bad of a season when you find yourself thinking: ‘you know what? Maybe Steve Bruce wasn’t that bad’. (Of course, the correct answer here is yes, yes he was).
For those who want to mentally punish themselves, try to put the following ex-managers in order from best to worst:
• di Canio
Go on, give it a go – it’s like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube!
Initially, I had another section in this review which tried to put this season in perspective with recent seasons – in an attempt to rank how bad it all really was. I quickly realised it was all too hard. It was like trying to pick the smelliest animal dung at a farm.
Let’s just say it wasn’t very good. It was obviously better than McCarthy 2005-06, probably about the same as O’Neill 2012-13 and worse than last season’s di Canio/Poyet side show.
Am I really being too harsh?
I can live with winning ugly. I can even be convinced to handle losing with some style and “playing the right way”. What I cannot accept is losing ugly.
As a supporter and a fan, I do not feel “entitled” to anything from Sunderland FC – except entertainment. Winning ugly is definitely entertaining given the success and because you’re upsetting everyone else along the way. Losing with style can also be entertaining as you are witnessing some skill and everyone else thinks you’re “playing the right way” (although I prefer winning ugly). Losing with some really talented youngsters who just need some time to find their way is also perfectly ok as you are investing in the future.
This season, I don’t think any of us could say we were even close to sufficiently entertained. Even last season’s ratio of 90% per cent misery/10 pet cent most enthralling entertainment possible was a bit better than this season. This season, we played ugly, we were unsuccessful, we had no confidence, we were very lucky not to be relegated and there was very little meaningful entertainment. Sorry, but I need more than just beating Newcastle and a rabbit pulled from our backside in the last few games.
Is it really harsh for me to expect a bit more than what we received this season and the seasons before it? Not a lot more, just a bit?
So what now?
First up, we need to secure the services of a manager for next season. Advocaat would be nice, but he’s seriously considering retirement. Either way, this is step one as we can’t sensibly sort out our transfers until this has been done. I don’t want to be writing another running diary of how we screwed this one up.
From there, call me silly, but I still think the building blocks of a solid team are there and do not think we need a major squad overhaul.
We definitely need two new centre backs for a start – with at least one being more of a finished product and the best we can possibly afford, the other perhaps being a younger up and comer who can be shown the ropes by O’Shea and the other new comer. Perhaps Coates could fit the bill as the youngster? He’ll probably be cheap enough and he started showing some good promise towards the end of the season. He would also not need to learn the ropes. This would leave Brown and Vergini being in their rightful places as early round cup fodder and ‘break in case of emergency’ league players.
From there I would prioritise:
• a speedy attacking left/right midfielder – with Giaccherini going to help partially fund (it really saddens me to write this – he’s a classy player who I think needs to play in a warmer climate to be healthy);
• a box to box central midfielder – with Bridcutt going and some serious praying that Rodwell can come good next season (I’m not giving up on him yet); and
• a striker – with Fletcher going to help fund.
There will also be some really tough decisions on what to do with:
• Wickham – I really want to give him another season to see what he can do. However, it’s hard to trust him to get the goals and I don’t want to see him wasted as a left winger/forward. All said, something tells me we should hang on for one more season; and
• Alvarez – do we really have to buy him for 8 million? If so, can we sell him or cut some sort of other deal? Or is there enough there to suggest that he can stay healthy and figure things out next season? He’s not particularly fast, so where would we put him?
Unlike previous seasons, we’re not going to have anywhere near enough valuable outgoings to fund the needed incomings. Sorry Ellis, but you’re going to have to whip out the check book this time to the tune of about 15-20 million (on top of funds received from sales).
From there, I think we can turn the corner. All we need is a little bit of common sense. I have no doubt we’ve learned from our past mistakes. We can easily get some better names in and ship out some of our underperformers. We’ll definitely be better and the comfort of mid table awaits. It certainly can’t be that hard.
There, I think I’m all better now. I love Sunderland.