How quickly things can change in the short space of a month.
April 10th, 2014
Yes, it’s very difficult to believe that little over four weeks ago (at time of writing) Sunderland fans were joyously taking over Covent Garden and preparing for the Capital One Cup Final against Manchester City.
Now the mood couldn’t be more of a polar opposite to that, with every pub and street in Sunderland filled with doom and gloom.
Sadly, the doom and gloom is with full reason as ever since then it’s been one massive failure after another, each more crushing than the last.
It seems to have started with wholesale changes against Hull City in the Quarter-Final of the FA Cup. Splitting up the team which had battled so manfully at Wembley, and no doubt came away from the capital with confidence despite the defeat, seems to have been the pivot for the downfall of the side.
Gus Poyet told us that it was with an eye on the week after against Crystal Palace – a crucial game in our battle for Premier League survival.
It couldn’t have backfired any more as the two struggling sides played out the most ‘nilly’ of nil-nil draws I’ve seen in a long time.
It may well have been a huge error of judgement and a lack of a result in a ‘must-win’ game, but at least we got a point. If only the same could be said for our other abject performances which followed.
Going to Norwich was always going to be relatively tough, but not impossible that one or maybe even three points were possible. After all, it was just three weeks ago we were a pair of wonder-goals away from beating one of the best sides in Europe.
The East Anglians however managed to waltz their way to a 2-0 victory, and to be honest the score-line flattered us after an incredibly poor performance.
Liverpool in the week looked like it would be even more of an embarrassment; however by that point I’d simply stopped caring. Why? Because the players seem to have done exactly that themselves.
Even Seb Larsson admitted post-match at Carrow Road that they ‘didn’t want it’ as much as the home side, which is just a shocking admission and one that no player should ever make, even if it was refreshingly honest.
How can they not want it? Do they not realise the situation we’re in or do they not care about it at all? Is relegation not an issue when you’re on £30k + a week? It’s just plain insulting.
Drastic measures were taken by Poyet. The first time he’s shown much tactical flexibility since being installed as manager. Connor Wickham recalled from loan at Leeds United and a new 3-5-2 formation of sorts.
For the large part it worked and we managed to stifle Liverpool. Once Adam Johnson and Ki Sung-Yeung were introduced to the action we even had a chance to salvage a point from a two-goal deficit and we looked genuinely positive and with a clue of what we were doing for the first time in a while.
So given that these two creative and attacking players made such a difference to our play, you’d have thought the team that finished against Liverpool would have a chance to start again against West Ham the following Monday.
In a decision as baffling as dropping everyone for the visit to Hull City in the FA Cup, Adam Johnson was once again left out of the side. Ki was in, but our top scorer was once again left out.
Don’t get me wrong, at times Johnson does flatter to deceive, but a team desperately short of goals cannot at any time afford to leave out the one player who has actually gotten some of them this season.
Against the Hammers the 3-5-2 was once again in effect but utterly useless. Quick and incisive passing was replaced by long hoofs to Connor Wickham – who seemingly didn’t want to chip a nail – and Fabio Borini who, despite being a great player, was dominated physically by Winston Reid and James Tomkins.
Having allowed West Ham to take a two-goal lead with relative ease, changes were required.
Enter Adam Johnson.
Not only did Johnson score in a new-found ‘free role’ but also was at the heart of any and all half-chances we created for ourselves.
Can you see the pattern emerging here? Whilst he’s not always on form, we play considerably better with Johnno in the team and whatever it is that Gus is doing by not playing him simply isn’t working.
This is perhaps where Gus Poyet lacks some experience. Against West Ham his little pet-project Liam Bridcutt was as awful as anyone else, if not worse, yet he continues to play every minute of every game while Johnson – who can actually make a difference – doesn’t.
I like Bridcutt, he has a role to play for us, but some sort of blind loyalty to him seems to have blighted Poyet’s judgement.
It’s a small matter though. The fact is we cannot go on leaving Johnson out at this stage of our season. Not unless you’re actively seeking to get yourself relegated.
If we do stay up I feel it will be all down to Johnson. Nobody else barring maybe Fabio Borini looks likely of conjuring up a goal, or even a chance for a teammate.
Get both in the side, get both down the middle, squint, and hope for the best. It’s all we can do at the moment and provides us with the best chance of actually winning.
Give up on Connor Wickham, Jozy Altidore and even Nacho Scocco for the time being and play the players who have done something. Not those who might do something if put in the right system.
We have no idea what the right system is, and apparently neither does Gus Poyet, so all he can do and what we can hope for is that the best players are put out there. Nobody can convince me that Wickham, Bridcutt and Altidore give us a better chance of winning than we do with Johnson, Ki and Emanuele Giaccherini or even Craig Gardner in the side.
Gus, If you’re reading (and I doubt it) it’s time to abandon systems, stick the best eleven out there and pray to the Gods of Football.