Friday spotlight: Defensive solidity can steer Sunderland to safety

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ALTHOUGH Sunderland’s final two cup appearances and last away trip have blurred the achievement, the Black Cats actually have one of the best defensive records in the Premier League in 2014.

Three goals conceded in both the Capital One Cup final and FA Cup quarter-final, coupled with the 4-1 reverse at Arsenal (which let’s face it, is ,one of the most daunting away missions of the campaign), saw 10 goals shipped in three games by the Wearsiders and brought back memories of their early season woes.

But the reality is that – those eye-catching defeats apart – Sunderland’s defence has been their great strength since the turn of the year.

Arsenal apart, Gus Poyet’s men have conceded only six goals in the seven Premier League games played since the turn of the year, which points to a greater defensive resilience.

Even with the Emirates result factored in, 10 goals conceded in eight league games is hardly the stuff of sinking ships.

Contrast that with the two teams below Sunderland in the table – Cardiff have conceded 22 goals in 11 league games in 2014; Fulham have let in 24 in 10.

The only team which stands comparison to Sunderland in terms of defensive meanness in the bottom half-dozen sides in the table is last week’s opponents Crystal Palace, who have conceded 10 goals in their 10 league games in 2014.

It is that defensive solidity which has provided a platform for both Sunderland and Palace to inch upwards and away from their previous position of being cast adrift at the bottom.

Steve Bruce, when he was boss at Sunderland, always insisted that it was goalscorers who saved you from the drop.

It’s a philosophy he has resolutely pursued at Hull, with the acquisition of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long in the January transfer window.

The purchase of the pair and their subsequent performances, looks like being enough to keep the Tigers in the Premier League this season – something goal-shy West Brom, who sold Long to Hull, should be looking closely at in particular.

But while it’s true that prolific goalscorers keep you up, it’s equally true that sides with defences that leak like a sieve also struggle to stay up.

If there’s a difference in the methods of escape, it’s usually that, with the aid of goalscorers, two or three wins quickly lift you clear; if you’re relying on defenders all the time, progress can be at a snail’s pace.

Sunderland are currently on the slow path.

But Poyet believes his side can achieve defensive solidity – even in the face of title-chasing opponents – now that Liam Bridcutt has been recruited to the cause and Lee Cattermole is learning the way the Uruguayan wants the defensive midfield role played.

Acknowledging the transformative effective of Wes Brown on Sunderland’s defence since his return in November, Poyet said: “Wes has been key and he came back in the same game that Vito Mannone made his debut for us.

“The thing about Wes is that not only is he a great player but he has a great understanding with John O’Shea.

“So, with Vito in fantastic form behind Wes and John, we had a defensive triangle we can build on; a really solid platform.

“Now, with the arrival of Liam, we are turning that triangle into a diamond involving four players, while, on top of that, Lee has probably learned more under us than anyone and is playing the position better and better.”

Poyet’s plan is to have that quartet as the rock of the defence, purely concerned with the art of defending, while the others take care of the creative side of things.

“There might be those who thought Liam didn’t do much last week because they didn’t see him making many forward runs or supplementing attacks, but they could not be more wrong,” said Poyet.

“The role he has in the team is purely to stop the opposition scoring – that’s the job of the defensive midfielder – it’s not about flicks or touches or dribbling or forward runs.

“And, last week, Liam’s positioning and defensive work was excellent – if John O’Shea or Wes Brown wasn’t there: he was.

“He and Brown and O’Shea and Mannone were the key to keeping the clean sheet, while Liam protected the back four throughout and passed the ball cleanly and simply.”

Poyet was equally as praiseworthy of Cattermole’s excellence in the defensive role of late, and it is clear that the head coach is satisfied with the way the defensive aspect of Sunderland’s game has come together.

It will need to stay together too, if survival is to be achieved, especially as, with Steven Fletcher sidelined and only Fabio Borini, Jozy Altidore and the still far-from-fit Nacho Scocco to call on, a goal-fest for the Black Cats does not look likely.

At least in one respect, Sunderland’s defensive strength has nudged the odds in Sunderland’s favour.

The Wearsiders conceded 20 goals in their first eight games this season to leave themselves with a shocking goal difference which got worse before it finally got better and they have held it in check ever since.

Currently, that goal difference stand at minus 16, which looks great in comparison to Fulham’s minus 35, Cardiff’s minus 29 and the minus 24 of tomorrow’s opponents, Norwich City.

If this is going to be the closest relegation race in many years, goal difference might yet be the deciding factor in who stays up and who goes down.

And that’s why the solidity of Sunderland’s defence remains just as important as the sharpness of its attack.

Twitter @sunechograeme

* Don’t miss the biggest and best coverage of Sunderland’s trip to Norwich, plus Tony Gillan’s View From The Bridge, Brian Patterson’s away guide to Liverpool, Yesterdays and much more, in tomorrow’s online Football Echo – it’s available on sunderlandecho.com from around 6.45pm