Sunderland’s annual escape act: home form will prove the key

Sunderland vs Newcastle warm-up.(CC BY-SA 2.0) by Ben Andreas Harding

Alex McMahon argues that Sunderland’s home form will be crucial to manager David Moyes’s attempts to build on recovery from a dreadful opening part of the season and lead his side to safety …

For the fourth season on the bounce, Sunderland endured a poor start to the Premier League campaign.

However, unlike in past struggles this underwhelming opening of the season had mitigating factors: the late departure of Sam Allardyce and the appointment of David Moyes just three weeks before the first match against Manchester City.

No one was surprised to lose to Pep Guardiola’s men on the opening day of the season, but the defeat to Middlesbrough at the Stadium of Light brought a tidal wave of negativity that was not helped by the manager’s comments about being in a relegation battle.

Although a first point of the season was picked up away to Southampton, injuries were beginning to take their toll, adding to the impact of Sunderland’s familiar difficulty in attracting the required quality to remain in the top flight.

Matters on the pitch then took a turn for the worse with the winless run extending to games, including a crushing 3-2 defeat to Crystal Palace and a sickening late loss to West Ham United at the Olympic Stadium.

The pressure on Moyes seemed almost to overwhelm him, but it eased just in time for a spirited 10-man performance to overcome Bournemouth, with big Victor Anichebe enjoying his first full game, scoring one goal and earning the penalty from which Jermain Defoe secured three vital away points.

Sunderland players lining up (CC BY 2.0) by Ronnie Macdonald

Although the ship has now been steadied at home, with three victories since the win at Bournemouth, the poor start once again left Sunderland with a mountain to climb, being backed in the latest bet365 Premier League betting odds at 4/6 to be relegated to the Championship.

However, unlike our past great escapes, the roots of recovery have made their first appearance in December rather than the final throes of the campaign.

The home form has been extremely encouraging in terms of results, although the displays against Hull and Watford were far from perfect.

It summons memories of the days when Roy Keane was in charge in 2007-08 season and Sunderland were horrendous away from home but gained the wins over the bottom-half sides that kept the club in the division.

That’s one of the reasons Sunderland have struggled so much in recent seasons, with memories of defeats at Hull, Watford and West Ham. This season’s losses to Palace and Boro offered a huge warning sign that those troubles were back to bite.

However, now that Sunderland have  at last shown they are capable of winning games, Moyes should feel confidence that the drop can again be avoided this season – which might even improve his mood.

Although we could look back at those early defeats to Middlesbrough and Palace with particular regret, there is plenty of time to make up the lost points between now and May with home games against Bournemouth, West Ham and Swansea City to come in the second half of the season.

Those matches could figure among make-or-break factors in determining whether Sunderland slip into the Championship.

Injuries could be decisive, too, with Duncan Watmore and Paddy McNair sidelined for the season, while Lee Cattermole, Jan Kirchhoff and Lynden Gooch are also out for extended periods.

Financial difficulties will make signing replacements far from straightforward in the January window and may even force the club to part company with a saleable asset or two. Jordan Pickford and Lamine Kone have been linked with possible exits.

Should Moyes be able to restock the squad with some of the cash generated from those potential departures, much as he did in his Everton days, then another escape could still be achieved. Sunderland have given themselves a hard task, but there’s a path to safety available if they can seize the initiative and take it, with strong home form a massive requirement.

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