Graeme Anderson’s match report: Sunderland back to reality of survival fight

Jack Colback in action against Hull City.
Jack Colback in action against Hull City.
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WES Brown was sent off four minutes into this game – Sunderland, unsurprisingly, lost.

That was pretty much Gus Poyet’s summation of a match he described as: “not worth analysing too much.”

It was a reaction which was wholly understandable on his part.

Why agonise over a game in which Sunderland had hobbled themselves virtually from the start?

Brown’s sending off was the third fastest in Premier League history, a fact which tells you immediately you’re in pretty unusual territory here: better to write it off as a freakish day at the office and move on.

Unfortunately, the Echo does not have the luxury of one paragraph match reports.

And besides, there was much food for thought to be had from a clash in which, for the second time this season, Sunderland tossed aside all the feel-good factor gained from a derby win against the same mid-table opponents.

Once again, you sensed Sunderland would have got a point or three against a Hull unit which was well-organised and determined but little more.

Once again, Sunderland failed to do so through their simple inability to finish the game with the same number of players they’d started with.

Phil Bardsley and Brown, heroes of the defence in the previous week’s derby were the villains of the piece – the full-back’s shocking back-pass, Brown’s mistimed tackle and Sunderland facing a mountainous 86 minutes with just 10 men.

And although the Wearsiders set about their task manfully enough, there was almost a sense of the inevitable as the 34-year-old central defender trudged off the field to begin a two-match ban.

Poyet had spoken before the game of how he had learned much from the previous Hull encounter when Sunderland were reduced to nine men; how pleased he had been that his tactics and substitutions had all paid off.

This time, arguably, none of them did on a day when fortune favoured the visitors.

Sunderland conceded just after the quarter-hour when new signing Shane Long notched his second Hull goal in as many games and the Wearsiders rarely threatened to get back on level terms after that.

They conceded again on the hour, through Nikica Jelavic’s first Premier League goal of the season, and never threatened to get back into the game at all after that.

Even Hull boss Steve Bruce admitted he could not believe how comfortable the last half-hour was.

Sunderland’s performance could hardly have been in greater contrast to the lion-hearted display at St James’s Park the previous weekend.

The home gate was 8,000 up on the back of that famous result, helped partially by a bigger travelling support, but all the returnees got for their money was a return to Sunderland at their most unconvincing and disjointed.

Poyet had understandably named the same team which won 3-0 on Tyneside, which meant a home debut for Liam Bridcutt in a 4-1-4-1 formation.

Hull welcomed Jake Livermore back into a five-man midfield playing behind two strikers and the attack-minded approach paid dividends from the start.

If you were a glass half-full man, you would argue that Sunderland had no luck – Bardsley’s hurried back-pass could not have played Long in any better, Brown’s full-blooded challenge was a yard away from being a brilliant one.

There was an element of good fortune about both of Hull’s goals too.

Livermore was going for a volleyed finish from a right-wing corner in the 16th minute, only to misdirect his shot into the turf, where it bounced high enough for Long to glance home at close range.

When Jelavic nodded home for 2-0 just after the hour, it was courtesy of another deflected shot, Maynor Figueroa’s long-range shot striking home defender Santiago Vergini and looping up perfectly for the Croatian to head past Vito Mannone.

But this is where further analysis throws doubt on your initial observations.

Hull simply started the game much, much better than Sunderland in the run-up to the sending off.

And that must call into question the Black Cats’ one-paced approach to home games – they pass, pass. pass from the start, visiting sides are rarely put under that traditional early pressure from a Sunderland surge.

When Bardsley made his mistake, it was because he was being pressured so aggressively by tigerish Tiger David Meyler; when Brown made his mistimed tackle it was because Long moved the ball unexpectedly towards the defender, rather than away from him.

Hull earned their good fortune.

Similarly with the opening goal.

It was a set-piece and so had nothing to do with numerical disadvantage but everything to do with Jozy Altidore half-heartedly heading away a near-post centre destined for the gloves of Mannone behind him and a lot to do with Ki Sung-Yueng’s failure to close down Livermore.

And though there was an element of good fortune about the second goal, Figueroa had been allowed to advance too far unchallenged into shooting range and, when his shot was deflected, John O’Shea and Marcus Alonso were caught in no-man’s land with Jelavic between them.

On the day, Sunderland could get nothing right and the difficulties of management were perfectly illustrated when Poyet made two logical decisions 12 minutes into the game and both backfired.

He had thought for eight long minutes about how he would counter Brown’s dismissal, during which time Mannone had made the first of several excellent saves he would produce – beating out and then saving a well-struck Tom Huddlestone free-kick which followed Brown’s foul inside the Sunderland “D”.

There had even been a promising Sunderland attack which saw Fabio Borini fouled and Liam Rosenior booked as a result.

It was inevitable that Vergini would have to come on, with fellow centre-half Brown dismissed, but there was complete surprise in the Press Box when it was Borini who made way.

Poyet’s critics argued that Borini’s energy and attacking threat should not have been removed, that Bridcutt was the obvious choice, given the number of defensively strong midfielders in Sunderland’s side.

For what it’s worth, I agreed with Poyet, who had spoken before the match about seeing this game as a tight one with maybe only one goal in it.

His tactics were clear – be as strong defensively for as long as possible – Sunderland had too long to negotiate to be able to make it an even game over 90 minutes – and then look to take a point or three by going for it in the final stages.

Where arguably he lost it was with another logical decision – to bring Adam Johnson in from the wing so he would see more of the ball.

January’s Premier League Player of the Month has been in such superb form that England manager Roy Hodgson had made the trip to the Stadium of Light to watch him.

It made sense on one level not to allow Sunderland’s most dangerous player to be a peripheral figure on the wing.

What the changes did, though, was to allow Hull the freedom of the flanks and it was through their width that they continually presented danger – ex-Sunderland winger Ahmed Elmohamady giving exposed left-back Alonso his toughest game in a red and white shirt.

And it was from a raid down the right that Hull pressed for their opening goal, Livermore’s fine volley being blocked brilliantly by Mannone for the corner from which Long would score.

Once behind, the grimness of Sunderland’s position became apparent, with three defensive midfielders in Bridcutt, Jack Colback and Ki while Altidore was isolated up front and Johnson continually outnumbered “in the hole”.

The England hopeful did manage his side’s best effort of the game, a brilliantly struck volley outside the box from a misdirected Figueroa header shortly before half-time.

But the shot was straight at veteran goalkeeper Steve Harper and, while his was an isolated effort, Hull were regularly peppering Mannone’s goal, with both visiting strikers having regular opportunities and Long going closest with a left-foot shot on the turn from distance which hit Mannone’s right-hand post.

Trailing at the break, all Sunderland could look to do was hang in there second half and aim to be bold at the death.

They could offer nothing as an attacking threat before Jelavic cushioned a well-aimed header into the top left-hand corner of Mannone’s goal in the 62nd minute.

Collectively, Sunderland’s men knew the game was up.

There was scope for Poyet to be bold – to bring on his most attacking player, Emanuele Giaccherini, and big striker Connor Wickham for the last half-hour, but, when the changes did come, Craig Gardner was a surprise replacement for Ki in the 70th minute and Wickham did not arrive until five minutes later when Bridcutt departed.

By that stage, Sunderland were a spent force and Hull had their tails up – the only question was whether a side which had not won a league game in 2014 would win the match even more comfortably.

It was a colossally deflating way to end a day which had started with the promise of a trio of league wins and a chance to see Johnson sparkling in front of the England boss.

One thing Poyet was right about, though, was the need to draw a line under this game immediately and move on.

They will have no time to lick their wounds or feel sorry for themselves this week, not with a trip to Manchester City on Wednesday, facing a side which has scored 42 goals in 11 league games at the Etihad this season.

Some will bill Wednesday’s game as a dress rehearsal for the Capital One Cup final.

But it’s more than that – it is the first of 13 cup finals which will decide Sunderland’s destiny in what will be one of the tightest relegation battles in Premier League history.

Twitter @sunechograeme