SAFC Verdict: Signs of improvements, but hard-luck tales worthless at this stage of season

Adam Johnson troops off disconsolately after Sunderland's defeat to West Ham yesterday
Adam Johnson troops off disconsolately after Sunderland's defeat to West Ham yesterday
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PERHAPS Dick Advocaat couldn’t have had a better introduction to what it entails to manage Sunderland.

Play well for 88 minutes, miss glorious chances to go ahead, look defensively comfortable and then concede at the death. Even worse, there’s a sense of injustice at the inability of the officials.

Welcome to Wearside.

This was a cruel climax to Advocaat’s bow. Every point counts in the relegation battle and Sunderland came desperately close to adding another to their total.

Not even the positives from the performance really count at this stage. Points are all that matters.

However, there was plenty for Advocaat to take stock of during the fortnight’s international break.

Sensibly, Advocaat didn’t make wholesale changes to the starting XI (albeit he didn’t really have the option to) nor adopt a radically different formation (he hasn’t got the time to).

But there were subtle, noticeable differences from the Gus Poyet regime.

Gone was the defensive midfielder role, with Poyet favourite Liam Bridcutt immediately relegated to the bench. Instead, it was simply a flat midfield trio, with Jordi Gomez and Jack Rodwell either side of Seb Larsson.

And while Advocaat stuck with three up front, gone was the tried and testing ploy of two widemen either side of the central striker.

Steven Fletcher and Jermain Defoe played as an orthodox front two, albeit they were asked to work hard in tracking back, while Connor Wickham operated in the hole behind them.

Fletcher was excellent in the first half leading the line. He was certainly one who had received a proverbial rocket from Advocaat’s arrival.

And rather than ask Defoe to play with his back to goal, Sunderland looked for balls over the top for the ex-West Ham man - a ploy which saw him spurn a glorious early chance to open the deadlock.

It was a mystery why Poyet had never really urged his side to go long for Defoe. He’s made a career out of lingering on the last man and stretching an opposition defence in behind.

Sunderland had numbers in the final third and fashioned chances. That’s been a clear deficiency for the vast majority of this season.

Perhaps most importantly of all, there was some industry and pressing in Sunderland’s ranks - something that was completely absent seven days earlier. Wickham and Gomez notably put in the yards.

The game wasn’t quality - far from it - but there was no lack of effort from Sunderland.

By playing with no orthodox widemen, it allowed West Ham’s full-backs plenty of space and they duly peppered the Sunderland box with crosses, albeit the Black Cats just about dealt with it.

It was an understandable move from Sam Allardyce to bring on Carlton Cole at the break, yet it didn’t produce a more notable threat from the Hammers, as the game became increasingly ugly as a spectacle.

Adam Johnson’s introduction provided some interest, with both sets of fans giving him predictably contrasting receptions.

There were a few glimpses from Johnson, yet he couldn’t alter the complexion of the encounter; the only real moment of quality in the second half from Sunderland coming through Patrick van Aanholt’s long-ranger.

Sunderland were well worth a point. But hard-luck tales are worthless at this stage.