Chris Young analysis: Is it already too late for Sam Allardyce to save Sunderland?

Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce 17-10-2015. Picture by FRANK REID
Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce 17-10-2015. Picture by FRANK REID
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All season long, Sunderland have been late.

They were late finding their match fitness after the trans-Atlantic demands of their pre-season campaign left players huffing and puffing on the opening day while Leicester hit the ground running.

Sunderland somehow found a way to lose against a side who were as mediocre as any they have faced

They were late bringing in players before the end of the transfer window, which gave Dick Advocaat no leeway to plot his strongest side.

And they are so late in recording an opening win, that the Black Cats are now the only side in the top four divisions without a league victory to their names.

The worry now is that the arrival of Sam Allardyce has come too late to save Sunderland’s skins.

Of course, this situation is not insurmountable yet with three-quarters of the season to go. Allardyce had much less time to oversee a similar rescue job at Blackburn, when he took charge with 13 points from 17 games.

But Allardyce desperately needed a bounce effect from his opening games at the helm to give confidence-stricken players a shot of self-belief that they can play their part in yet another escape from the drop.

The manager can only do so much.

If these players don’t end the losing habits and savour the taste of victory over the next week or two (and yes, it does desperately need to come in the Wear-Tyne derby) then Sunderland might never banish the blues this season.

Setting aside the manner of West Brom’s controversial winner on Saturday, Sunderland somehow found a way to lose against a side who were as mediocre as any they have faced (that has been said too many times over recent years).

The Baggies – whose only real threat came from Sunderland old boy Stephane Sessegnon – were there for the taking, but the Black Cats’ inability to come away with anything, left them in a worse position than at the same stage of the 2013-14 campaign.

No-one will forget that it needed a “miracle” for Sunderland to avoid relegation that season.

Unless confidence improves with an imminent win, there will continue to be individual errors at the back too.

They are one of those painful side-effects of struggling sides.

Allardyce was right to publicly condemn referee Martin Atkinson’s failure to penalise Saido Berahino’s barge into Costel Pantilimon, before he then kicked the ball out of the keeper’s hands.

But Pantilimon HAD to catch that ball and play to the whistle.

Regardless of the foul, it still has to go down as a costly clanger from the Romanian for the second game in a row.

That error undid what was a much-improved defensive display, as Allardyce’s presence was immediately felt with a more robust line-up and a five-man layer of midfield protection to a back four which clearly needs a helping hand.

There was a calmness to Sunderland’s defence which hasn’t been apparent this season; fit-again Younes Kaboul looking much more assured and both full-backs competently keeping tabs on their men.

With Lee Cattermole given the task of breaking up Sunderland’s play, while Yann M’Vila sat deeper in a quarterback role, the Baggies never remotely looked a goal threat.

The concern is that while Sunderland maintained possession happily, they didn’t look much better at the other end, albeit they were relatively bright in the opening 20 minutes when Billy Jones’s header was well-saved by Boaz Myhill.

It is perhaps a bit rich to be criticising Sunderland’s attacking, when Allardyce has made it perfectly clear that the brittle defence is his immediate priority.

There are no objections to Allardyce’s first concern. Sunderland’s feat of reaching half-time at The Hawthorns without conceding, for only the second time this season, tells a laughable story of how bad they’ve been at the back.

But Alllardyce’s four predecessors all found it an elusive task to strike a balance between attack and defence with this side.

The back-line is not good enough to soak up pressure without a helping hand from midfield.

Neither is the attack good enough to create something out of nothing.

It’s a conundrum which Allardyce will have to begin solving this week, when he gets a much-needed chance to mould his ideas onto the entire squad.

The return from suspension of Jeremain Lens against Newcastle will certainly help Sunderland going forward, as will Ola Toivonen, if the Swedish international can overcome a groin problem in time to take his place at the Stadium of Light.

The concern then is that Sunderland will again leave themselves exposed at the back by taking out the more defensive-minded instincts of a Seb Larsson.

But perhaps Sunderland need to take a few chances to record a crucial win over Newcastle for the sixth time in-a-row.

Certainly, Allardyce is likely to be more adventurous on home soil, particularly against his former employers, who look destined to be involved in the end-of-season survival struggle, despite yesterday’s win.

Allardyce will also know the importance of maintaining Sunderland’s derby run, and not just for local pride.

Sunderland are approaching a stage where it’s win or bust if a resurgence is to be better late than never.