Sunderland need midfield power – Big match verdict

Jack Colback
Jack Colback
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NESTLED snugly on the Sky Sports sofa, Sunderland old boy Dwight Yorke was unequivocal in his backing of Martin O’Neill.

Given the mischief-making rumours over O’Neill’s future which swirled around Wearside on Saturday night, it was perhaps inevitable that the Sunderland manager’s position would be a topic of discussion after a captivating, if ultimately galling, 4-2 defeat.

But while Yorke lent his support, he did stress a deficiency in Sunderland’s approach – the lack of a midfield playmaker.

Yorke was only half-right though.

Certainly, Sunderland’s central midfield lacks a creative aspect and – Craig Gardner aside – boasts the most minimal of goal threats.

But Sunderland have a player on the bench in David Vaughan who is capable of picking a pass, yet has struggled to hold down a consistent starting spot, even if there is an argument for the Welshman to be included against QPR tomorrow night.

It is not just craft Sunderland require in the middle of the park, it is power.

Six foot-plus duo Steven N’Zonzi and Mohamed Diame both bleeped on Sunderland’s radar during the summer, without ever creeping close to a switch to the Stadium of Light.

Despite being linked with Celtic striker Gary Hooper yesterday, it is surely a midfield powerhouse that will be on O’Neill’s wishlist in January.

The goal situation is beginning to be addressed with five in the last two, and it has not necessarily come at the expense of the defence, with strong mitigating factors for West Brom’s final three goals on Saturday.

But Sunderland have struggled to control games from midfield this season, particularly when Lee Cattermole has been on the sidelines.

The lack of midfield muscle was a key factor in a third successive home loss.

It was less noticeable when Cattermole was on the field, with the skipper providing some drive to Sunderland’s forward forays and providing the foundations for Adam Johnson and the superb Stephane Sessegnon to find space.

But even before the influential Cattermole limped off 10 minutes before the interval – in a pivotal moment of the game – it was West Brom’s middle men who were given too much leeway to control proceedings.

Without injured bruiser Youssouf Mulumbu, Steve Clarke dropped the criminally under-rated James Morrison into a deep role alongside Claudio Yacob.

Even without a natural midfield behemoth, Sunderland should have been quick to press the less than imposing duo and hand them some of the rough stuff.

Admittedly, that was tough in the second half when Sunderland inevitably had to leave gaps in a bid to fight back from the two-goal deficit.

But in the opening 45 minutes, Sunderland backed off and let Morrison and Yacob manipulate the play, while they attempted to hit the visitors on the break.

It was only the second time this season that the buoyant Baggies have had the majority of possession in a Premier League game and although O’Neill has always favoured the counter-attacking approach, that is a telling statistic.

Without Cattermole though, Sunderland’s midfield is significantly weaker.

Gardner and Jack Colback badly suffered from imprecision, both with their final ball and simple square passes.

It was a slight surprise in the first place that O’Neill had opted to persist with Colback, rather than recall Gardner after the former Birmingham City man returned from suspension.

Although O’Neill understandably wanted to keep faith with a winning side, Colback is in the midst of a dip where he is struggling to discover the form he showed last season.

The cheers from a minority which greeted his second-half substitution were wholly unnecessary, but Colback looks as if he needs a breather to restore some confidence – much as Jordan Henderson did during his final six months at the Stadium of Light.

Can O’Neill afford to leave Colback out though?

Gardner hasn’t looked anywhere near as assured in his favoured midfield role than he did at right-back earlier in the campaign.

It is as if Gardner is too eager to impress, as he was when he first arrived on Wearside.

Early in the second half, Gardner burst impressively down the right-hand channel of the area, but instead of letting fly or hitting a decisive cross, he could only unleash a square ball that was intercepted at the near post.

But Cattermole’s absence leaves O’Neill in a quandary for tomorrow night’s crucial clash with bottom club QPR.

Gardner and Colback will seem the most likely midfield pairing, although, with neither convincing, the respective merits of Vaughan or Seb Larsson in a central role will have to be balanced.

O’Neill needs to get it right though because it is imperative the Black Cats emerge victorious tomorrow.

Not draw, not just perform well. They need a win to build some momentum, even at this tender stage of the campaign.

There is a growing unease on the terraces at the Stadium of Light and it is not directly correlating with performances.

It was evident after defeat at Goodison Park earlier this month and was again prevalent over the weekend.

Never mind that Sunderland were much-improved from the rudderless display against Aston Villa three weeks earlier.

Never mind that Sunderland’s tally of 11 shots on target was more than they had managed in total from their previous four outings at home.

And never mind that Sunderland were facing a slick, well-drilled West Brom side, brimming with confidence from their best ever start to a Premier League season.

Results have prompted this disenchantment, particularly at the Stadium of Light.

It’s no wonder.

Sunderland have taken a modest five points from their opening home five games and, even worse, secured just three victories at the Stadium of Light since February.

Messageboards and social media – admittedly the forums for juveniles and extremists – were brimming with bile on Saturday night after Sunderland succumbed to a third home defeat in a row.

Although they will pointedly ignore the signs of improvement, Sunderland once more find themselves with the heat building, just a week after it looked as if their season was beginning to take off.