CHRIS YOUNG: Middle dearth – Sunderland’s midfield needs sorting

Marcos Alonso.
Marcos Alonso.
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THE TIMING of Roberto De Fanti’s dismissal as Sunderland director of football may have caused a few eyebrows to raise.

With a fortnight to run of the January transfer window, it seemed a touch surprising to shuffle the club’s management structure while deals were still to be done.

But, in reality, the loss of the agent-turned-Ellis Short favourite won’t have any destabilising effect on Sunderland’s bid for reinforcements. Quite the contrary, if anything.

Chief executive Margaret Byrne is well versed in conducting transfer negotiations, while Gus Poyet has been behind those players Sunderland have targeted this month.

Ever since gauging the calibre of Sunderland’s summer signings in his first few weeks in the job, Poyet has been determined to be pro-active over the fresh faces, rather than delegating them to De Fanti, as Paolo Di Canio had done.

But while Poyet’s focus must now turn to the demands of four crucial games inside 11 days, including a League Cup semi-final and the derby, business in these next two weeks could be pivotal towards Sunderland’s survival hopes.

Poyet claimed after an entertaining, if perhaps fortuitous draw against Southampton, that he was looking for new recruits “everywhere” throughout the side.

Yet Saturday highlighted the two areas which have to be a priority – central midfield and centre-forward.

Southampton have enjoyed more time to fine-tune the brand of football which Poyet is attempting to bring to Wearside. Inevitably, they are able to do it more cohesively at present.

But they also have more quality in those pivotal positions.

Morgan Schneiderlin utterly dominated the middle of the park, both creatively and defensively, by constantly pressing Ki Sung-Yueng and denying the influential South Korean the chance to dictate proceedings.

It was only when Ki moved into a deeper role, when Lee Cattermole went off, that the on-loan Swansea man was able to exert some control.

Perhaps that provided Poyet with food for thought over whether both midfielders can be including in the same XI at home.

But Sunderland have to be cleverer than just relying on Ki to feed Fabio Borini or an increasingly influential Adam Johnson, who had an engaging battle with hugely promising Saints left-back Luke Shaw.

Like the rest of his team-mates, Cattermole was guilty of cheaply surrendering possession on the rare occasions when Sunderland saw anything of the ball, while Seb Larsson endured a game to forget, highlighted by the cheers from the crowd which greeted his removal.

Even when asked to move into the hole behind Jozy Altidore at the start of the second half, when Sunderland finally began to show some intensity, Larsson was unable to improve his impact.

Craig Gardner made a telling contribution when he replaced Larsson and finally offered some decent support to the frontman.

Consistency has been a problem for the Brummie though and, with his contract expiring in the summer, that attacking midfield role is one which remains a problem.

So, too, does the striker, particularly if the knock which restricted Steven Fletcher to an emergency contribution from the bench, develops into a serious injury.

Altidore was forced to feed off scraps, but the American needs to do more to help himself.

The £6million summer arrival’s first-touch lets him down, while he too often lets his marker get ahead of him when one of the full-backs knocks the ball down the channel to relieve some pressure.

There have been calls for Danny Graham and Connor Wickham to be recalled – particularly strong for the latter given his goals return at Sheffield Wednesday – yet there has to be a suspicion that Poyet is not convinced by either. He is likely to look elsewhere.

The bottom line is that Poyet needs more players who can make the difference at the Stadium of Light.

Away from home, Sunderland look a solid, well-drilled outfit, very capable of exploiting any gaps on the counter-attack.

Yet aside from Johnson, there hasn’t been enough to worry sides on Wearside, particularly when they have done their homework on the Black Cats.

Some of that has to come down to a lack of intensity from kick-off.

Far from starting like an express train after the 4-1 victory at Fulham, Sunderland were more Thomas the Tank Engine on Saturday lunchtime.

The lack of pressing on Southampton was frighteningly exposed by Jay Rodriguez for the early opener, albeit it was an excellent finish from the former Burnley man, while it took some suspect goalkeeping from Artur Boruc to kick-start the Black Cats after the Pole couldn’t keep out Fabio Borini’s fourth goal of the season.

It’s fine for Sunderland to try to take the sting out of the game on the road, but at the Stadium of Light, they need to take the initiative.

But the home form has been a problem for far longer than just Poyet’s reign. There have been just four Premier League wins at the Stadium of Light since the turn of 2013 and that is an unwanted statistic which requires attention from fresh pairs of eyes.

A point after playing so poorly for long periods against an impressive Southampton side is nothing to complain about.

Such a return would hardly have been classed as a disaster prior to kick-off, regardless of the turmoil off-the-field at St Mary’s last week, and it keeps Sunderland’s tally ticking over.

Yes, Sunderland could have moved out of the bottom three with a victory, but it’s points, not places, which are the overwhelming priority at this stage.

But Sunderland will need to win three, probably more, times at home before the end of the season.

The upcoming Stadium of Light games against Stoke, Hull, West Brom, Crystal Palace, West Ham, Cardiff and Swansea will decide their fate.

Poyet needs to make sure his acquisitions over the next 12 days are astute enough to garner enough points from that pivotal set of fixtures.

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