Lars Knutsen looks at the undeniable problem facing Jack Ross: how to inspire his players to stop dropping so many points because of a failing to build on or protect leads …
Are Sunderland AFC now ready to emerge from this season’s “bad patch”? More to the point, does our record since November 17 – D, D, W, W, L, W, D, W, D, D, D, W, D – actually constitute some sort of a slump in fortunes?
On January 13 I tweeted the following @LJSKnutsen: “Have never been a fan of Alex Ferguson – lingering memories of the David Bellion saga. One of his insults to the Arsenal Invincibles was ‘too many draws’, which wound up Wenger. Would hate to have that one thrown @SunderlandAFC – we have to find a way of turning them into wins ??”
We have definitely been “hard to beat” but this has resulted in a lot of draws so far this season.
As the saying goes – everything is relative…and compared to certain teams above and around us, namely Luton Town and Barnsley, have we been keeping pace? They are two of the current form teams, and lie above us. Here is the League 1 table as it stands:
One can argue that these are “first world” problems compared to some of the slime the Black Cats have tended to serve up over the past few seasons, but we are at the third level now and as a club, it is imperative that we play our football back in the Championship next season.
That is part of the business plan; but for all sorts of reasons a club of our size needs to emerge from this division rapidly.
We have only had two league defeats, and are not at our lowest ever position, which was 12th in the old Third Division in September 1987 – see www.thestatcat.co.uk – but it is not just the fans demand promotion, our board does also.
In a real way, following Sunderland has been quite relaxing this season. We have a quite staggering record of having scored in the last 37 league games.
So if on a day when one cannot make it to a game, and it is 0-0, it is just a matter of time until we score. The other side of that stat is this: however fine it is scoring goals, we have not hit the back of the net more than once in a league game since December 15. If it was not for Portsmouth’s current problems, we could be feeling out of touch with the top three in this league.
On August 29 1981, the era of three points for a win came into being.
I was there as we faced Ipswich Town for the first game of the season at Portman Road in the top division. We were 3-1 up just after the hour mark, but Eric Gates scored twice for the Tractor Boys to peg us back. Alan Durban was manager at the time, and he was understandably disappointed after the game, losing two points. This is our present reality; draws just do not have the value that they used to.
Looking at our 12 draws in 29 games this season, it is too many, and we need to look at our tactics.
We need to score more goals, crossing the ball into the box more often and effectively. Grant Leadbitter has provided two excellent balls into the box in his first couple of games resulting in goals. Overall, I would favour the team’s early season short-passing game to get the ball into the box early.
I am sure that some of the squad are feeling the pressure – see my last blog on the topic of stress for footballers from January 9 – and that would be perfectly understandable, but when they do feel that way and are honest with our very approachable manager, they can be rotated.
This is one of the benefits of having so many players available. I am sure that when players such as Maguire, Cattermole, Flanagan or Watmore have been out of the team, they can come in and lift the mood, driving the side forward.
Another factor in our recent unconvincing form could well have been the departure of Josh Maja.
I am sure that the presence of a goal poacher in the side made things easier for everybody; this was definitely the case for the fans. Maja is a natural goalscorer but that part of his game did not emerge until this season.
We could try put blame on our owners for not spotting this and tying him down earlier, but to be fair, Stewart Donald defended himself very well on the Roker Rapport podcast. It will not happen again, and the board were tied up with saving the club.
Maja emerged unexpectedly, and his contract was what it was.
He was offered a better one by SAFC and Jack Ross wisely kept the door open for him. I believe that his head was turned by his agent but once that happens, and a player wants to leave, it is hard situation to resolve as we found out with Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan. And to be honest, the sale of Maja was good business for a young player, and we now have Will Grigg, who when match fit is a proven goalscorer.
Sunderland’s current situation will be affected by the next three home games and wins in that sequence will be transformative, both for the team’s confidence and our league position. The current weak patch will then hopefully become a distant memory.