SUNDERLAND’S New Year resolution can be summed up in one simple, yet seemingly elusive, word. Goals.
There simply aren’t enough of them in this side at present.
Everyone can see it. Everyone knows that it is the obvious priority for the January transfer window.
It has already cost Sunderland probably at least half a dozen points this season, despite the campaign only reaching the halfway mark.
Gus Poyet’s target of two wins from the final four games of 2014 has been missed through a basic lack of attacking potency.
Defensively, Sunderland have been generally excellent, with only three sides in the Premier League keeping more clean sheets over the first 19 games.
But a failure to find a breakthrough against 10-man Aston Villa yesterday simply reinforced the problems Sunderland have going forward and their struggles in both creating and finishing opportunities.
The Black Cats are too predictable, too one-paced and badly miss the width emanating from two full-backs capable of stretching an opposition defence.
The return of left-back Patrick van Aanholt from injury can’t come quickly enough, particularly as it will allow Billy Jones to revert to right-back, where he is more threatening.
But it is in the transfer market where Sunderland need to act.
The Wearsiders desperately need a striker who has the capability of both getting in behind the opposition defence with his pace, and can break into double figures.
It’s not the only problem.
More depth is needed in the full-back slots, while a midfield schemer capable of finding that defence-splitting pass has to be on sporting director Lee Congerton’s shopping list next month too.
Emanuele Giaccherini threatens to fill the latter void, but too often the Italian international flatters to deceive, albeit he looked far sharper yesterday than he did when he came off the bench against Hull 48 hours earlier.
Villa have got the same problems.
Like Sunderland, they have a well-drilled defence who won’t concede a host of goals, but they are also too predictable going forward and won’t win sufficient games as a result, despite having Christian Benteke on board.
The game always looked like it had 0-0 written all over it, and neither side bucked those expectations, even if Sunderland were presented with a golden opportunity after Fabian Delph’s dismissal.
Delph could have little complaint at referee Martin Atkinson’s decision after a poor, ill-timed, studs-up challenge early in the second half.
The near-3,000 Sunderland fans inside Villa Park sensed the opportunity stemming from that red card, yet although there was lots of possession, a couple of near misses, desperate goalmouth scrambles and Jordi Gomez’s late drive hitting the post, home goalkeeper Brad Guzan wasn’t tested anywhere near enough.
It wasn’t a lack of ambition from Poyet.
Connor Wickham and Adam Johnson moved more centrally, both full-backs were pushed high up the pitch and substitute Giaccherini was given licence to drift after replacing the injured Seb Larsson.
If anything, Sunderland were a bit too gung-ho in leaving gaps on the counter-attack, which Villa sensed they could exploit to grab an unlikely winner.
But it isn’t necessarily an absence of offensive appetite which has cost Sunderland all season. There’s just not enough quality there when it matters.
Johnson was alert and looked capable of finding a breakthrough, but he had too much to do on his tod.
And, as proceedings wore on, Sunderland’s passing was too safe; either sideways or backwards, rather than trying to pick out the midfield runner attempting to burst in behind the Villa defence.
Credit to Villa – and particularly centre-back Ron Vlaar – for the way they defended with 10 men. They remained superbly well-organised at the back.
The hosts didn’t simply shut up shop either. They continued their attempts to nick a winner, with the impressive Carlos Sanchez offering some composure in the middle of the park and teenager Jack Grealish picking holes after coming off the bench.
They could even have nicked it at the death, with Leandro Bacuna and Benteke both going close after being thwarted by Costel Pantilimon.
However, Paul Lambert’s side arguably looked more dangerous with 10 than 11.
In a dire first half, they were starkly reminiscent of Sunderland, with only ex-Black Cats loanee Alan Hutton offering an outlet for Villa.
Hutton was a threat on the overlap, on the home side’s right, and had the Sunderland defence stretching on a couple of occasions when he got to the by-line; John O’Shea denying one opportunity with a brilliant challenge on Andreas Weimann.
But the only real elements of note from the first half were injuries to Sunderland’s midfield, with Liam Bridcutt coming off with concussion after a challenge with Benteke and Larsson receiving a heavy blow to the ankle which he surprisingly managed to shrug off and continue.
After being tellingly left out of the entire matchday 18, there may well be a chance for Jack Rodwell at his former club Manchester City on Thursday.
But the awful spectacle of that first half is why both clubs are surely destined to finish in that 13-15th area of the Premier League table. They’re both solid, yet won’t score enough.
After last season, that has to be considered progress, with a four-point buffer from the relegation zone relatively healthy, albeit Sunderland’s next three top-flight games aren’t particularly appetising – against Manchester City, Liverpool and Spurs.
Considering it took Sunderland until the end of January to reach 20 points last time around, the Black Cats are clearly on the right track. But these cycle of 11 draws – six of which have been stalemates – are frustrating for Poyet, his players, supporters, the board, everybody.
With just a splash of extra attacking quality, Sunderland could be in the heady heights of the top half of the table.
The January sales will be pivotal.
Slow and steady progress is fine after the rollercoaster of 2014, and Poyet needed to start from the back after Sunderland were such a soft touch defensively for much of last season.
But it’s the other end of the pitch which clearly needs addressing.
It prevented an “all right” first half of the season being an excellent one.
ASTON VILLA: Guzan, Hutton, Vlaar, Clark (Okore 61), Cissokho, Delph, Sanchez, Cleverley (Grealish 68), Weimann, N’Zogbia (Bacuna 57), Benteke. Subs not used: Given, Herd, Lowton, Robinson. Booked: Vlaar (44). Sent off: Delph (49)
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Vergini (Buckley 78), Brown, O’Shea, Jones, Bridcutt (Cattermole 19), Larsson (Giaccherini 57), Gomez, Johnson, Wickham, Fletcher. Subs not used: Mannone, Altidore, Alvarez, Coates. Booked: Cattermole (56), Johnson (73), Giaccherini (90)
Attendance: 35,436. Referee: Martin Atkinson