THREE problems have beset Sunderland in 2011 and now threaten to derail more than just aspirations of a top-half finish.
All three contributed to the alarm bells chiming against West Brom in Saturday’s 3-2 defeat and unless Steve Bruce can find a tonic, Sunderland will no longer be known as the side who fell out of the top flight with a pathetic 15 and 19 points. They will become the club who suffered the most catastrophic collapse in Premier League history.
Problem One – The Treatment Table
The one factor which Bruce has had no control over, yet has proved fatal to hopes of Europe, which now seem laughable.
Lee Cattermole, playing only his third game since returning from a back problem, showed in the first 45 minutes on Saturday how Sunderland have been hurt by losing the spine of their team.
Cattermole snapped into tackles during the first half, leading swift pressure on the ball carrier and roaring both the crowd and his team-mates on in the process.
But when the lack of match fitness took its toll in the second half, coupled with concern over his caution from collecting a needless booking on the stroke of half-time, Sunderland had no bite in their midfield.
It didn’t help that central partner Kieran Richardson, one of three more casualties, didn’t re-emerge for the second half after thundering into a 50-50 on the edge of the Sunderland area.
Replacement Bolo Zenden was one of too many players in the Black Cats side lacking sharpness and the Baggies found it far too easy in the engine room – Youssouf Mulumbu and Paul Scharner winning everything in the air and most things on the deck.
It allowed West Brom time and space to build patiently and pick out the holes in the Sunderland back line, as they did so comfortably for their two second-half strikes.
Problem Two – The Bent Factor
Initially, Sunderland shrugged off January’s loss of Darren Bent, who had been a virtual passenger for the final two months of his tenure on Wearside anyway.
But, with Bent’s departure and the decision not to sign a replacement in January, Bruce has been left with no options in his attack.
Asamoah Gyan has been an automatic choice, while the returning Danny Welbeck has had to go straight back in with little time to bed in.
Sunderland’s front line was crying out for an introduction of fresh blood on Saturday because there was little or no cutting edge.
Compare the Sunderland front two with West Brom frontman Peter Odemwingie – arguably the bargain of the season at £1million, £12m less than Gyan.
Odemwingie was bright, pacy and regularly latched onto balls in behind the Sunderland defence. Sunderland didn’t have that. They were either too static in the final third, tried to do the spectacular or were simply left puffing their cheeks out at the haphazard delivery coming their way.
Problem Three – Defensive transformation
During the first half of the season, Sunderland rivalled Manchester City and Chelsea in the clean sheets table.
But the fortitude which brought so many shut-outs has been forgotten – replaced instead by blind panic and ball-watching.
If it hadn’t been for the stunning reflexes of Simon Mignolet, then West Brom would comfortably have added to their deserved advantage.
All three Baggies goals were stomach-churning.
The first – Jonas Olsson was allowed to win a header unchallenged eight yards out to flick it on for Odemwingie, who was the wrong side of Anton Ferdinand four yards out.
The second – Mulumbu was abandoned by the Sunderland midfield who didn’t spot the obvious opportunity for a one-two and he promptly sent the ball into the far corner via a wicked deflection off Michael Turner.
And the third – Sunderland backing off the Baggies who swept it around before picking out Paul Scharner in behind them.
These three factors alone would not necessarily prove fatal. But they have combined to create something far more dangerous, in destroying confidence.
Bruce now arguably faces his biggest managerial challenge since trying and failing to keep Birmingham in the top flight in 2005/06.
He must reinstill some belief in his players that they are far better than a relegation scrap and have too big a margin to catapult into the Championship.
While avoiding the drop would no way compensate for an embarrassing finale to a campaign that promised so much, Sunderland have to ensure that almost four years of Premier League foundations do not infamously collapse.