Chirs Young’s big-match verdict: Sunderland come up short again

Danny Graham

Danny Graham

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DANNY Graham trotted up the stairs from Reading’s subterranean dressing rooms, chatting with Lee Cattermole.

Moments later, Alfred N’Diaye and Kader Mangane followed the former Middlesbrough duo towards the waiting team bus.

But that was the end of the parade of new signings bearing Sunderland tracksuits.

After Sunderland’s unbeaten run came to a depressingly familiar finale at the Madejski Stadium, it was impossible not to wonder whether there should have been a few more fresh faces during the transfer window.

This was the first weekend where managers could be fairly judged on their January recruitment drive, rather than being prematurely lambasted by supporters while they waited on the grinding wheels of motion to speed up as the deadline approached.

The three Martin O’Neill has managed to bring to the Stadium of Light all look well thought-out – Danny Graham is a goalscorer, Kader Mangane offers experienced short-term cover and Alfred N’Diaye harbours potential, even if the basics were beyond him on Saturday.

But more is still needed to renovate a side which has largely lingered in the bottom half of the Premier League table for the past 18 months.

O’Neill is not blinkered enough to think otherwise, but the Sunderland manager can only work within the means offered to him by Ellis Short – a spectator in Berkshire.

It may seem an unnecessary criticism of the transfer activity, given that Sunderland could easily have secured a third win in four had N’Diaye possessed a modicum of precision with his finishing or Graham enjoyed some debut fortune.

But victory would have masked what was a very ordinary display from the visitors, against a Reading side boasting a hearty work ethic, yet precious little quality.

From the off, Sunderland were their own worst enemies.

Possession was ceded with such recklessness that the Black Cats barely got out of their own half for the first 20 minutes.

It was only when N’Diaye and then Seb Larsson drew a double save out of Adam Federici that Sunderland briefly flickered into life and levelled the scoreline through Craig Gardner’s pinpoint penalty precision.

But, for much of the opening 70 minutes or so, it was a familiar pattern.

Sunderland knocked passes straight into touch, got brushed off the ball all too easily, launched aimless high punts forward or gave Ian Harte a platform by conceding needless free-kicks on the edge of the area.

What was particularly noticeable though was the way Reading were unrestrained in central midfield and down both flanks.

Arguably, had Cattermole been fully fit and Danny Rose been in full flow, Sunderland would have been markedly improved in both areas.

But none of Sunderland’s men in the middle of the park managed to produce any cohesion with their passing and it was only when Reading began to tire during the finale that gaps began to appear in the home defence.

The failure to contain Jimmy Kebe and Gareth McCleary out wide was of even more concern though.

Gardner has looked more accomplished at right-back than in midfield this season and did improve on Saturday after a torrid first 20 minutes when he couldn’t contain McCleary and was booked when the former Nottingham Forest winger got the wrong side of him.

But neither Gardner, nor Jack Colback during a first half at left-back, could halt the succession of crosses which peppered the Sunderland area.

Reading didn’t attempt to masquerade as a tiki-taka Swansea-esque outfit. Brian McDermott’s plan was simple – get the ball wide and deliver as many crosses as possible towards lone striker Pavel Pogrebnyak.

Sunderland’s willingness to concede free-kicks only added to Reading’s opportunities to continue the aerial assault.

For the most part, Titus Bramble and John O’Shea dealt well with Pogrebnyak – getting tight to the Russian and winning the ball confidently in the air. But then both blotted their copybook with errors in the build-up to Kebe’s brace.

The problem stemmed from the pressure allowed to build through the succession of crosses though and the full-back areas will surely consume O’Neill’s priorities in the summer transfer market.

Sunderland need to pull out every measure to land Rose on a permanent basis, while right-back is also a concern, with Gardner shoehorned in to the slot – albeit generally admirably – and Phil Bardsley suffering the ramifications of missing pre-season.

Nevertheless, the two permanent January signings should do well for the Black Cats.

In just 10 minutes, Graham showed his predatory instincts and boasted that always overlooked asset of being in the right place, at the right time.

If Sunderland were not facing Arsenal this Saturday, the prospect of the £5million frontman partnering Steven Fletcher would be a very genuine one, with Stephane Sessegnon’s position once more under scrutiny.

And for all he endured a second successive below-par display, N’Diaye has the attributes in terms of physique, engine and making the right runs. The rough edges need some cultivation though if the France Under-21 international is to thrive in the Premier League.

But Sunderland still remain light after the deadline, even if there was not necessarily a desperate requirement to spend needlessly during January.

Although the gap with the relegation zone is down to eight points and Sunderland have lost to one of the Premier League’s strugglers for only the second time this season, a productive December and January has put the Black Cats in strong position.

What Saturday did show, though, was that O’Neill’s rebuilding job still requires more investment before Sunderland can banish the inconsistency which has stigmatised their season.