Phil Smith’s SAFC analysis: Sunderland’s late lethargy a concern going into crucial final 11 games

Billy Jones rises to get in a header against Manchester City. Picture by Frank Reid
Billy Jones rises to get in a header against Manchester City. Picture by Frank Reid
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‘We’ve got Guardiola, we’ve got Guardiola’ was the chant from the away end.

Telling, though, that is wasn’t audible until Manchester City flier Leroy Sane had surged clear of the Sunderland backline and all but settled yesterday’s game with half an hour to play.

Jermain Defoe fires in a shot against Manchester City. Picture by Frank Reid

Jermain Defoe fires in a shot against Manchester City. Picture by Frank Reid

In their first half, the travelling fans mirrored the anxiety of their team, who were hurried and rushed by the pro-active Black Cats.

That Pep Guardiola cut short his post-match celebrations to pore over the performance with David Silva and Willy Caballero said much.

He is a perfectionist and this was far from it.

For much of the first half, their best threat came from long balls from Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane to chase.

David Moyes sprang a surprise by pushing Didier Ndong into an unfamilar second striker role, there not to create but to disrupt, pushing the City defence back towards their own goal.

Ably supported by Seb Larsson, Darron Gibson and Fabio Borini, for the first half at least, there was much encouragement.

The quality on the ball, or the lack of it, was an issue, but at least the fundamental energy and desire was there.

The grave concern, with just 11 games to go, was that again Sunderland did not come close to sustaining it for the full 90 minutes.

If the first half was uncomfortable for City, and Guardiola admitted that they were lucky to take the lead, then the last quarter of the game was an exhibition as they moved their way around Sunderland with ease.

The snap had gone from the hosts, space was opening up all over as Sane, Sterling and Silva poured forward at will.

Sunderland have now failed to score in five of their last six games and this was another occasion when once they fell behind, they never truly threatened to get back into it.

Another major frustration, too, is that it takes the arrival of the league’s finest for Sunderland to press effectively and with such purpose.

Should Sunderland replicate what they managed here in the first half when Burnley visit in a fortnight’s time they will have a good chance of a much-needed result.

Too often, however, positive elements from pressure-free games like this one have not been built on in the following weeks.

The Black Cats have reached the point where one or two more false steps against the teams in the bottom and the gap to safety will approach double figures.

Even the Premier League’s great escapologists would struggle to turn that around, such is the lack of pace and creativity in the squad.

The margins were fine.

Jermain Defoe was inches from getting his side the lead that they probably deserved, the second week in a row when luck has cruelly conspired against his remakable ability to create something out of next to nothing.

There was an element, too, of simple quality winning out.

Sunderland did well to mostly shackle Leroy Sane, David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero, but, in the end, all found that crucial inch of space and time they needed to make a defining contribution.

Sane, in particular, eats up the turf with such grace and ease that stopping him for 90 minutes at times looked impossible.

It is another day of ifs and buts, and time is running out.

Positives there may have been, but the way Sunderland faded so comprehensively towards the end of the game had the alarm bells ringing again.

It’s that lethargy that makes an April revival seem more unlikely than ever.