Malcolm Dawson writes….in the games I’ve seen this season Sunderland have been consistent and on a par with the opposition. Spurs looked the better side but didn’t dominate. Swansea were dominated but never really looked like losing. Stoke in the League Cup beat us but we could have just as easily been the winners. The analysis could go on. Today we played much the same BUT we found the back of the net. Suddenly six games without a win becomes only one defeat in seven matches. There were frailties. Giving the ball away too easily. Gomez looking to pass back when a breakaway was on and O’Shea and Cattermole yelling at him to look up the field rather than at Vito. But we played well. Fletch looked sharp in front of goal and worked hard in wide areas and in the deeper positions. The league table is congested but we are 11th as I write. Now we just need to kick on. Gus I think is here for the long term and he was overjoyed today as we can read in his post match e-mail.
It was tough because we started well and got a goal which meant everything was perfect, but then they scored the equaliser and perhaps people started getting a little nervous.
We didn’t get nervous. We were calm, playing the game and believing in what we do with good movement, which are the things we work on – when you do things in training and it works in games the players buy into it and believe.
Overall we can now look at the table in a different way because now we have lost one in seven which is not a bad start.
I am the type of person who likes to accept responsibility when it doesn’t go well because I am in charge and I pick the team. Of course when you make hard decisions like today – leaving Jack Rodwell and Adam Johnson out. It is nice when it works because it shows that Fletch was doing something in training in the past two weeks that we needed.
Last year that partnership was largely made by Fabio Borini and Connor Wickham at the end of the season with Johnson standing out, but today it was Connor and Fletch, which is fantastic for us because it creates a situation where you know the role of every player.
Look at the last goal with Connor because you do not see many players with the power and ability to go past so many people and pull it back. Maybe two years ago Connor would try and shoot from there but today he had the strength and the quality to pull it back, which is something everybody can see is improving.
It is a very good start. Every single game has been very competitive and we have had chances to win in every single one. We needed to score two or three and have a very good weekend so we will keep believing in what we do and if we take our chances it will be a great season for us.
Every cliché in the book was utilised in the run up to this game.
A must win, six pointer, real Cup Final of a game that we were promised would see the players give of their all. Well, unlike some callers to Radio Newcastle’s post match phone in, I’ve no doubt that they did give their all. The trouble as I see it is that their all just isn’t enough. Had this been a game where we weren’t trying to avoid the drop I might have enjoyed it. We played some decent stuff, showed we were better technically than the South London side but never really looked like getting more than a point from the game. As time wore on the familiar trepidation that we would concede late and finish with nothing returned. I have seen that happen too many times watching Sunderland for anything less than a 4-0 lead with 30 seconds remaining to instil me with the expectation of a victory. Peter Sixsmith has seen even more games than me and on a day when Radio 5’s preference for Rugby Union commentaries sent his blood pressure on an upward trend, the performance of Gus’s boys did little to alleviate the hypertension and on the day that Vladimir Putin ignored the wishes of the rest of the United Nations, he is looking back to pre-revolutionary Russia for a comparison with the club’s present plight.
ONE STEP FORWARDS, TWO STEPS BACK
As I am sure you all know, this was the title of a pamphlet written by V.I. Lenin for the Congress of the Social Democratic Labour Party, held in London in 1904. In it, he looked at the split between the Mensheviks (the majority) who wanted a democratic path to Socialism and the Bolsheviks (the minority and Lenin’s mates) who favoured a more revolutionary approach to establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The great man said that it was often necessary to go through this process to arrive at the desired outcome. Whether he would have felt the same had he been a Sunderland supporter 110 years on is debatable.
Two weeks ago, we looked to have made an important step towards fending off relegation with a spirited and impressive performance against Manchester City. We had the richest club in the world, booting the ball out and feigning injury as they held on to their narrow lead. Pride swelled from the terraces as it was said that the club and players had reconnected with the support.
Two weeks on, that optimism lies in tatters like the hopes and dreams of those Bolsheviks all those years ago. A supine performance against a Hull City side whose limitations were shown up by 10 man City, was followed up by a display against a wretched Crystal Palace side that showed all the weaknesses that we have accumulated over the last three seasons. Gus Poyet has inherited a squad of players who are looking down the barrel of the relegation gun yet again. They got away with it last year because Wigan Athletic were distracted by their first FA Cup Final and the appointment of a new manager jolted them out of the torpor into which they had slid under Martin O’Neill.
This time round, we can only hope that Hull City are distracted by the lure of that Wembley glory that we bathed in on March 2nd and that they are dragged kicking and screaming into the heart of the relegation scrap. Because that is the only way that I can see us getting out of the not inconsiderable mess that we are in now.
The Palace game was more of a mustn’t lose than a must win and we did achieve that, although they did come perilously close to nicking an undeserved winner at the end. On the other hand, did we ever come close to winning the game? The answer to that is an emphatic NO.
Granted, Borini hit the bar when he really should have scored and Speroni made a good save from Altidore. But other than that we barely created one clear cut chance and we completely failed to carve open a Palace defence that creaked at the start before they realised that if they stood their ground, the lack of creativity and imagination in a desperately poor Sunderland midfield would soon come to the fore and they could spend the rest of the afternoon happily defending long punts forward by our players. This lack of creativity and drive has been a serious problem for a while now. We do not have one player who can get hold of a game and direct it our way. Bruce, O’Neill, Di Canio and now Poyet have tried to get by with the strength of Gardener, Cattermole and Larsson and for those three, the Sunderland tank is now running on empty.
What else do we have? Bridcutt played deep and did reasonably well against the kind of side he should do reasonably well against. Colback missed this one, but he is, in the words of Doug Forrest, “yet another water carrier”. Ki opens well but fades too easily. Larsson and Gardener must both realise that their days at Sunderland are over. Their contribution to this game was, to put it mildly, poor. The Swede engineered a series of misplaced passes before he was hauled off to be replaced by Gardener whose first action was to be booked for an unnecessary foul. Both were signed from Birmingham City after their relegation and both have every chance of another one on their CVs.
The other major, major problem is where on earth do the goals come from? Borini and Johnson have been our most regular scorers but they are not prolific. In games against our relegation rivals, we have scored but a single goal at the Stadium of Light and, with the exception of Fulham, not many more away. Fletcher cuts a forlorn figure up front and looks as if he cannot wait to tell his agent to find him another club who want to go down. Words fail me when it comes to discussing Altidore. Quite the worst forward I have seen in a Sunderland shirt in the top flight – and I have sat and stood through Ian Wallace, Andy Gray and Paul Stewart.
I understand Poyet’s apparent sanguinity in his post-match interviews. There is little point in him criticising players for not being good enough, that is not their fault. They put plenty of effort in and never stopped looking for a breakthrough, even to the extent of Bardsley giving us one of his wonder dives towards the end. I would ask some questions of his tactics though. Both Palace full backs were booked early on for crude fouls on Borini and Johnson. Surely we should have continued to attack them. Borini running at Mariappa would have caused chaos but we allowed him to tuck in and pass his fouling duties on to the next player.
But he must be really worried about the fact that we cannot win games against sides that are down there scrapping with us. We go to Norwich next week to play a club whose fans are unhappy with their manager and who, in Ellander and van Wolfswinkel, have strikers who are as ineffective as ours. It could be a classic.
Palace were as poor a side as we were and their wretched goals for tally shows what they are – a team hanging on by fair means or foul. In Pulis they have a manager who may well keep them up but who seems to regard football as a branch of rugby union in that it is a game of attrition where skills with the ball are purely secondary.
Lenin realised that there was a long game to be played in 1904. By 1917, the Bolsheviks were in the ascendancy and had taken power in Russia. He always adhered to that philosophy of one step forward two steps back because he knew that the spurt would come sooner or later and that the socialist paradise that he envisaged would eventually be achieved.
Gus Poyet doesn’t have that time.
Two wins from the next three would put a different complexion on things but resurgence in South West London and the Black Country do little to help us. Time for us to stand on our own two feet and seize the commanding heights of the economy!!!
John McCormick loves his stats. After his theorising on the importance of goal difference in ensuring Premiership survival, he now turns his thoughts to the value that individual players make, particular our now crocked goalscoring centre forward. Not simply in terms of physical contribution either – he attempts to quantify this in hard cash. We’ll let John explain…….
Following the news that we will be without our top scorer for the rest of the season I’m rushing into print with something I’ve been developing for a while. (Less of a rush than intended but you can blame the editors for that – Dep Ed) My original premise arose from a question –
How much is Steven Fletcher worth to us?
I’d say it was an impossible question to answer, but I began to try anyway. My original premise was that he scores goals which generate draws or wins when we would otherwise lose or draw. These goals have therefore won us points which have moved us up the table. Moving up the table has a value.To estimate that value I began to track his performance in January.
I started by ignoring matches we lost and matches we won or drew without Fletcher scoring. For the remaining matches I tried to calculate how many points Fletcher’s goals generated. If he scored in a 1-0 win, for example, then that one goal will have generated an extra two points. If he scored in a 1-1 draw then he has saved the loss of a point and therefore generated a single point. Where he was one of a number of scorers I tried to divide the gain logically.
For example, in the home game against Fulham we were 2-0 down when Gardner and Sess scored so I’m crediting them with 0.5 of a point each. You could argue that as we finished with what we had at the start they didn’t gain us anything, but that doesn’t seem sensible. Here’s an example of a slightly more complicated situation. It’s easy to see that Fletcher’s goal at home to Wigan gained us two points. However, away to Wigan he scored twice and he alone equalled Wigan’s goals total for the game. Should that be one point for Fletcher, or does it qualify as generating two points? If we take the view that Fletcher’s brace gave us the win then he generated two points. If we take the view that we started with one point and Gardner and Fletcher between them made sure we came home with another two they generated one point each.
It’s obvious that this is a flawed method of calculating someone’s worth – and not just because the sums are a bit sloppy. It also misses a lot. It doesn’t begin to put a value on Ming’s saves, for one thing, and they must be worth a fortune in themselves. It also has to be accepted that Fletcher’s goals are not always individual efforts and that I’m ignoring his and others’ contributions in defence, their effectiveness in bringing in other players, setting up goals, keeping opponents back, etc. So to continue the Wigan example from the previous paragraph, we could agree that Ming kept us in the game towards the end, that O’Shea and Bramble marshalled the defence and even Elmo managed to help in running the clock down in the few minutes he was on the pitch. However, we couldn’t begin to quantify this team effort in terms of points earned per individual. All I can do for my part is acknowledge that these crucial aspects of the game have made a significant contribution to our overall points total, meagre though it is, point out that we succumb without them and ask for them in every game.
But to go down this route is to miss the point. Fletch is a predator whose skill and out and out killer instinct translates into goals which others might not score and it is this which provided a basis for my calculations.
What did I find? Depending on how I looked at multi-goal games Fletcher’s goals had gained us a minimum of 9 points and possibly 12 by the end of January. He then had a drought and failed to score for two months (apart from QPR, where we got no points) before injury finished his season. By the end of January his added points meant the difference between 11th place and a relegation spot or, at about £3/4 million per place, potentially over £5 million by the end of the season.
Now it’s academic. We won’t know how many he would have scored in the remaining eight games. All we can do is hope someone or someones step into his shoes and generate enough points to ensure survival. Who might gain those points for us? I was able to do the same calculation for our other goalscorers, once again ignoring goals in games we lost, and do a comparison:
Adam Johnson. 2-3 points: two points against Man City plus a goal against West Ham. This had us earning a potential £1.5 million over the season. McLean: 1-2 points for wins against Reading and West Ham, potentially £1 million Gardner: Gained us a point with a penalty against Norwich, potentially gained us another with a penalty at Wigan and half a point with another against Fulham. That could be worth £2,000,000 and a lot more if we stay up by 1 point Sess: Sess has scored some crackers, but too few and not always when it made a difference. He has only generated about an extra point, certainly not more than two, worth maybe £750,000 -£1,000,000. Larsson and Cuellar: they have generated maybe half a point each so far – let’s say they each have gained the club half a million pounds.
Of course these sums are irrelevant if we do not stay up. We now need to ensure survival and the emphasis has shifted from money generated by players gaining points to the gaining of points in itself.
While Fletch was rapidly repaying his transfer fee this lot together were generating just about enough points to keep us out of the relegation zone, but not much more than that, and they are still not scoring enough to guarantee safety. Apart from our spot kicker – who has done the job well – Adam Johnson has been our next best performer in the points earned stakes and he has not set the world on fire. The conclusion has to be that points will be in short supply for the rest of the season.
But we knew that already, given that Fletch had been off the pace in recent games, so perhaps we now have the opportunity to look at this from another perspective. It is regrettable that our number one points earner will not be around for a while but really, he already has been missing for a while. Now our manager has no choice but to stir the mix. Danny Graham or Connor Wickham might just be what is needed to breathe life into our attack in the remaining games.