TOO OFTEN in the last decade, Sunderland have been the rabbits caught in the headlights when faced with good, bad and indifferent Newcastle United sides.
Those same jitters struck Danny Rose inside three minutes of his derby debut yesterday. Immediately under pressure from Hatem Ben Arfa, the on-loan Spurs left-back misplaced his pass and provided the catalyst for the Magpies to inflict an early knock-down.
But yesterday’s salvaged draw was not attributable to Sunderland choking under pressure. This was a performance indicative of the problems that have plagued Martin O’Neill’s side all season.
Fortuitously, Demba Ba became only the second player after Steven Fletcher to hit the back of the opposition net for Sunderland, yet that alone is a damning statistic of O’Neill’s creators, who are simply not living up to their on-paper potential.
O’Neill admitted afterwards that Stephane Sessegnon, James McClean and Adam Johnson are toiling and the Sunderland manager now has decisions to make over whether the trio can click and supply the ammunition to convert draws into victories.
Leaving any of them out would be a big call considering Sessegnon and McClean were Sunderland’s two stand-out performers last season and Johnson was the biggest coup of the summer shopping spree.
Yet a tally of six goals from seven games – five of which have culminated in draws – justifiably prompts questions over the other options at O’Neill’s disposal for Saturday’s trip to Stoke City.
The return from suspension of Lee Cattermole and to fitness of Phil Bardsley, presents O’Neill with the chance to switch Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner to more familiar surroundings, while Louis Saha and David Vaughan both offered productive offerings from the bench yesterday.
Certainly, none of Sunderland’s three flair players could complain if they were left out for the trip to the Britannia.
Admittedly, they had mitigating factors at a raucous Stadium of Light yesterday.
Newcastle’s resilient back-line set camp doggedly on the edge of their own area, personified by Fabricio Coloccini – once again the stand-out performer on derby day and a costly departure after Sunderland levelled within six minutes of the Argentine leaving the field.
Once karma bit Cheik Tiote and Alan Pardew sacrificed Shola Ameobi – denied the chance of another afternoon as Sunderland’s chief tormentor – and boosted his midfield with James Perch, the Magpies kept their shape with genuine discipline and there were precious few gaps for the Black Cats’ dangermen to exploit.
Likewise, the service into Sunderland’s creative trio lacked bite.
Sunderland were far too lethargic and pedestrian as they lurched forward, unable to muster the tempo or vigour in their passing to have Newcastle scampering.
Johnson, in particular, too often had to collect possession from a standing start and, with two or three Newcastle shirts surrounding him, was forced to produce miracles from nothing.
The sight of Sunderland players bawling at each other because of the lack of movement in the second half told its own story of the hosts’ troubles going forward.
But then Johnson, McClean and Sessegnon didn’t help themselves either.
For all Johnson was Sunderland’s chief outlet in the opening 45 minutes, the £10million man drifted into anonymity after the break.
There was no urgency to the 25-year-old and he wandered aimlessly inside or cheaply surrendered possession as the frustration in the stands descended onto the pitch.
The sharpness from Johnson’s debut against Morecambe is yet to reappear and it was telling that replacement Vaughan was the one who finally handed Sunderland’s midfield some direction.
Likewise, McClean was similarly ineffective from the opposite flank – unable to get the other side of his man, persistently losing the ball and only really becoming an attacking influence in the final 10 minutes as Newcastle tired.
Neither McClean or Johnson were able to deliver sufficient crosses and that will surely prompt O’Neill to consider the merits of reverting Larsson to his favoured right-wing role.
As a central midfielder, Larsson has not necessarily convinced, yet his best moments yesterday stemmed from foraging down either side of the penalty area.
Within the first 10 minutes, Larsson controlled Gardner’s lofted ball down the right-hand channel with a superb first touch and delivered a cross towards Fletcher that Mike Williamson just managed to clear.
It was a better delivery than Johnson or McClean managed all game.
Yet it is Sessegnon who is arguably the most at risk of the trio in the Potteries this weekend, a statement that would have been unthinkable at the start of the campaign.
The Benin international left the pitch a dejected figure in the 65th minute, having failed to produce any meaningful contribution towards Sunderland’s attack.
Although in Sunderland’s previous Stadium of Light outing against Wigan, Sessegnon produced the first signs that he was beginning to rediscover last year’s form, the 28-year-old was arguably as poor as he has been all season yesterday.
Whether in the deep-lying role of the first half or the more advanced one of the second, Sessegnon was utterly nullified by the combination of Coloccini and Yohan Cabaye.
Sunderland’s linchpin was a shadow of himself, unable to link the play or offer an individual threat on goal. With Saha waiting in the wings, or the option of Gardner pushed forward into the hole, Sessegnon’s position is under threat.
It would be a drastic measure from O’Neill, but Fletcher is simply not being given sufficient support or service to feed upon.
The Scotland striker still looked sharp in his rare involvement yesterday, but was left to feed on scraps – the only hint of a chance coming when he sent a harmless header behind, under pressure from Davide Santon.
Contrast that with Newcastle who still looked an attacking threat, even with 10 men, particularly with the quick feet and quick brain of Ben Arfa on the break.
In a game devoid of genuine opportunities, Cabaye’s free-kick was tipped over the top, Ba volleyed over from close range and then lost his balance at the critical point after controlling Cabaye’s sublimely-weighted ball over the top.
Like Sunderland, Newcastle have struggled for attacking fluency this season, yet the Magpies worried the Black Cats.
The same could not be said of the hosts.
The performance doesn’t outweigh the result in this one though and a less-than-convincing Sunderland’s ability to grind out another draw is hardly a cause for disaster.
Quite the contrary. Sunderland have notched eight points from their seven league games without producing one genuinely impressive attacking performance.
Neither were Sunderland going to be instantly transformed from the side which finished 13th last season either – many of the flaws which haunted Steve Bruce’s final days remain in the side.
This is a long-term project, not a quick fix.