What a pity that pigeon post from such remote parts of Canada as Toronto has become so unreliable. Bill Taylor, who lives in that city and attended Sunderland’s game the other night, reckons the poor things tend to get shot down over Newfoundland. If Martin Bates’s long-promised dispatch avoids those guns and reaches Salut! Sunderland before the new season starts, it’ll get an airing, the least Martin deserves after being the source of those excellent pre-match photos of players mixing with fans. For now, Bill continues his re-emergence from Salut! exile with some more thoughts on what we should read into Sunderland’s performance, not one that impressed him though some of us may prefer (cling to?) the fitness-before-quality mantra …
With our opening game at Leicester less than two weeks away, are we in for another dour season of “play for a draw” games, the like of which darkened our horizon during Steve Bruce’s tenure at the SoL?
Hard to tell from seeing one pre-season friendly and reading about the others but, in spite of the Black Cats’ 2-1 victory over Toronto FC, I didn’t come away with very positive feelings.
Even my wife Lesley, who’s only ever seen two live football matches, turned to me at one point and said, “Shouldn’t Sunderland be playing better than this?”
Well, now that you mention it… yeah, kinda.
Summer tours are usually a bit of a hoot for Premier teams. They get away for a few weeks, put on a bit of a display for the locals, with two or three of the big-name players taking the field for a while to strut their stuff and show the home team how it’s done.
To wit, Arsenal’s 6-0 rout of Lyon on Saturday. One suspects that a good time was had by all, even the losers.
Not so much at BMO (pronounced Bee-Mo, if you were wondering; it’s a corporate short form for Bank of Montreal) Field last Wednesday. It was not a team largely made up of reserves that Dick Advocaat sent out.
I was sitting close to the visitors’ bench and Advocaat didn’t look a happy man, not even at the final whistle. He waved his arms and yelled at the players a fair bit, though I couldn’t make out what he was saying.
The Sunderland players did quite a lot of yelling, too. Mainly “Catts, Catts, Catts!” and “Seb, Seb, Seb!” Ironically, the two players, Cattermole and Larsson, who wound up with yellow cards.
TFC just got on with the job, dominating the wings, using space intelligently, controlling the ball in a sometimes delightful fashion and keeping the pressure on. I was particularly impressed with midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who picked up a sloppy clearance to put TFC ahead in the first minute of the second half, and striker Sebastian Giovinco, a diminutive Italian powerhouse. As the Mags used to sing of John McNamee almost half a century ago, “He’s here, he’s there, he’s every f***ing where…”
And where were Sunderland? For the first 45 minutes, in their own half mostly, unable to move the ball forward (Lesley: “Shouldn’t they be kicking it THAT way?”) and forced more times than were comfortable to pass it back to Pantilimon.
It looked almost from the opening whistle as if Advocaat, having seen his lads go down twice in the US, had told them to play for a draw; don’t worry about scoring, just make sure Toronto doesn’t.
With eight or nine guys playing defensive roles, when the ball did go upfield, there was generally only a solitary figure to try to keep possession while the others scampered after it. TFC, cool, calm and collected, would gather it up and start another well-thought-out move to pressure the hard-working Pantilimon. They could easily have racked up three or four goals.
Only once did Steven Fletcher, with a flash of individual brilliance, make a one-man breakthrough that came, alas, to nought.
It was only after Osorio’s goal that the Cats woke up. Jermain Defoe, to a half-hearted chorus of boos from the home crowd, scored twice in five minutes. His first goal was deflected in by a Toronto player but the second was a beauty with Defoe finding space to pick up a well-directed Fletcher pass.
Toronto head coach Greg Vanney by now was doing the sort of thing you’d expect more from the Premier side in a game like this – making substitutions, a total of eight, not only from the reserves but also the “farm team” of up-and-comers.
It was, he said, to see how young players, as yet without a TFC contract, hold up against supposedly top-class opposition. They did pretty well.
Not only that but Vanney also cheekily experimented with a new 3-5-2 formation. That did pretty well, too.
The crowd, just over 14,000, was bigger than I expected, almost half filling the 31,000-capacity stadium. I was delighted to see so many red-and-white shirted supporters, too, most of them packing the end behind the goal where Defoe put the ball away twice. They made more noise than the TFC fans and, after the whistle, were given their due appreciation from both players and team officials.
They got their win but they deserved a better game. Advocaat’s excuse was that his squad was tired after a lot of training. I won’t argue with that but what bothered me most was the way they played – not so much as a team (and they’ve been together for a while now), more as 11 guys who know the moves better than they know each other.
If the on-line rumour mills are anything to go by, Ellis Short has told Advocaat he has to sell some players before he can make any more purchases, and Swansea is making a £4 million bid for Fletcher. Whether they get him or not, his departure seems to be not unlikely.
I’d hate to see him go. And I’d be fascinated to see who replaced him in the squad.
What I’d like more than anything right now is to see a smile of Dick Advocaat’s face. It might just have an effect on the players’ attitude. The impression I got on Wednesday was that TFC were enjoying their football but Sunderland were not. And that’s not good.
* NB: people on the other side of the Atlantic, even when originally from Bishop, have odd ways with English. M Salut has left most of Bill’s North Americanisms untouched; hence football teams become singular entities (eg “Swansea is” bidding for Fletcher) whereas the British English style, a little more pleasing on the eye, is to regard them as plural …