Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Brutal view of Sunderland’s task ahead

Swansea's Jonathan de Guzman in action with Sunderland's Valentin Roberge.
Swansea's Jonathan de Guzman in action with Sunderland's Valentin Roberge.
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GRADUALLY shaking his head on the touchline, Gus Poyet looked out in disbelief after Sunderland were finally put out of their misery at the Liberty Stadium.

From sending out his players at half-time with realistic hopes of going on to secure a first Premier League win of the campaign, Poyet had witnessed the most shambolic of collapses.

Poyet made no attempt to shake the hands of any in red and white who trudged off the pitch. He stood aside as they strolled red-faced down the tunnel.

There was a brief burst of applause for the 1,000 or so travelling fans and then off he went after the most painful of top-flight bows.

It was a brutal lesson in the full extent of Poyet’s task to keep this club in the Premier League.

The managerial union saw Michael Laudrup insist afterwards that it was far too early in the campaign to write off Sunderland’s chances of remaining in the top flight.

But is it?

Sunderland have a solitary point, are conceding an average of two-and-a-half goals per game and are engulfed by a losing habit.

The way heads plummeted to the deck when Swansea netted twice in less than 90 seconds betrayed a team who look resigned to their fate.

It wasn’t a fluke that the bulk of this side finished fourth bottom last season and, so far, there has been precious little evidence from the new boys that they have injected sufficient quality into Sunderland’s ranks to avoid the drop.

This is a group stripped of its prize assets and struggling to replace them. Like Kevin Ball before him, Poyet tellingly only starting with three of the summer’s recruits, albeit Ki Sung-Yeung was ineligible.

If Poyet cannot secure that much-needed win to instil some self-belief over the next two games – when both Alan Pardew and Steve Bruce will be desperate to prevail – then you really do fear for Sunderland’s hopes of avoiding playing in the Championship next season.

This is not a mess of the Uruguayan’s making though.

All Poyet can do is pray that his work on the training field will somehow halt Sunderland’s descent.

He couldn’t do much on Saturday after just 48 hours with a full quota of players.

The head coach simply made good on his pre-match promise of “going back to basics” by restoring players to their natural positions – Seb Larsson on the right, Adam Johnson on the left, Emanuele Giaccherini in the hole behind the returning Steven Fletcher and, most contentiously of all, Phil Bardsley at left-back.

Yes, Bardsley remains technically a right-back, but the best season of his Sunderland career came on the opposite side of the defence.

Initially, the tinkering paid off.

Sunderland looked defensively robust with a solid team shape and, although the opening half was desperately dull as a spectacle, it was pretty textbook from Poyet’s point of view.

Swansea’s widemen were shown infield, Sunderland managed to nick the ball away as the hosts uncharacteristically struggled for possession and an increasingly frustrated Michu came deeper and deeper to get involved.

Fletcher’s opportunity from Johnson’s corner was the sole clear-cut chance of the half from either side.

But when Swansea upped the tempo after a predictable half-time rollicking from Laudrup, Sunderland wilted with frightening fragility.

In the moments prior to the opener, Sunderland invited more and more pressure by their inability to keep the ball and there was an inevitably that the Swans would break the deadlock.

Poyet had been in urgent discussions with assistant Mauricio Taricco before the goal over making a change.

But it was too late.

The withdrawal of the extra man in the middle of the park – which had worked so well under Ball – left Sunderland unable to live with the Swans as they moved the ball with slicker precision.

And the rust on Bardsley was also exposed, almost predictably given the outcry among supporters over his return to the fold.

Bardsley got away with one two minutes before the break when his weakly hit pass to Valentin Roberge was intercepted by Michu and forced the French centre-half to bring him down.

If John O’Shea hadn’t been back covering, Roberge would have been given his marching orders.

Bardsley then spurned an inviting opportunity from Giaccherini’s cross at the start of the second half before he was caught on his heels as he deflected Angel Rangel’s flick-on beyond Keiren Westwood.

The fragility from set-pieces is contagious throughout Sunderland’s squad though.

If Poyet is to make good on his promise to go back to the drawing board, then defending deadball situations has to be at the top of the list.

Zonal marking clearly isn’t working. Again and again, no-one attacks the near post and the ball drifts towards the six-yard box before a touch diverts it beyond Westwood.

The Republic of Ireland keeper has been culpable for some of the deadball debacles, but it was hard not to feel much sympathy for him on Saturday.

If it hadn’t been for Westwood, Sunderland would have conceded six or seven.

He made stunning saves to deny Nathan Dyer, Michu and particularly de Guzman, with a rasping volley from eight yards out.

The former Coventry man was last off the pitch for the Black Cats and shook his head furiously after another game of picking the ball repeatedly out of his net.

Anger, disbelief and frustration were shared by both players and new manager alike as they slumped out of the Liberty after the heaviest defeat of the campaign.

For all fingers will be pointed left, right and centre by supporters – and understandably so – the only magic medicine for Sunderland is to win a game and regain some self-belief.

That looks to be further away than ever, as Sunderland produced another masterclass in handing a huge morale boost to those sides struggling around them in the table.

Perhaps, a derby – with the unique environment it produces – is the ideal antidote to Sunderland’s woes.

Win on Sunday and suddenly there is hope.

If the heads go down again though and Sunderland succumb...?

Such a scenario would make the new manager’s ideas largely redundant.

The monumental task to extend the club’s seven-year stay in the top flight will appear even more insurmountable than it does now.

Twitter @youngsunecho