View from the Bridge: Tis the season to be optimistic

Sunderland manager Gus Poyet.
Sunderland manager Gus Poyet.
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SEVEN days on from this column citing grounds for cautious optimism, Sunderland have played another two games. Our opinion now is – exactly the same.

Leading up to the last three fixtures, one point from nine would have represented a reasonable return. They got two. The draw with Chelsea was excellent; the one at Liverpool was good.

In between there was a bit of a pounding from Manchester City, which was not fun, but hardly shameful. Losing by three goals to a club with a zillion quid’s worth of talent on the bench is an occupational hazard. Three days earlier, City played with nine men at Southampton and won by the same margin.

And Sunderland have had their fun with City over the last few seasons. It had to end eventually.

There is much for Gus Poyet and his charges to improve upon. Sunderland have not won at Anfield since 1983, so a draw there was the peak of expectation for most people. Yet it could – and perhaps should – have been an away win. Liverpool were pretty bad.

So why the optimism – cautious or otherwise? The statistics have barely altered over the last three, extremely tricky fixtures.

Sunderland remain in 14th position (they seem to live there) and have now won only two of their 15 games this season. They are the Premier League’s third lowest scorers with just 13 goals; failing to notch in eight of the 15 matches. The season has been dull.

But they have lost just four games; just Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea have lost fewer. Of those four defeats, only one was a really bad result against a poor Queen’s Park Rangers (we’re talking results – not scorelines). The defence is solid.

However, you know what they say about statistics and where they can stick them. The main cause for optimism lies with the remaining fixture list.

A team like Sunderland should be satisfied with an away draw anywhere in this league. This includes trips to Burnley, Leicester, Crystal Palace and QPR. Results varied at these places, but none of those games were easy. Similarly, a draw at home against a top team is acceptable.

But all the top teams have now visited the Stadium of Light this season. The remaining 11 home games are against West Ham, Hull, Liverpool, Burnley, QPR, West Brom, Aston Villa, Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Southampton and Leicester. Some good sides there, but hardly the stuff of legend.

Sunderland will not win all of their remaining home games. But nor will they lose every away fixture.

Returning therefore to boring statistics, they currently have exactly one point per game. To fulfil a realistic ambition of a top half finish they will probably need around 47 points – or an average 1.4 points from each of the 23 remaining fixtures. This is perfectly feasible.

If they can somehow locate the back of the net.

WHICH brings us to Sunderland’s most obvious problem – scoring.

There are those who are dim enough to think that football is there for our entertainment, like the cinema, or Coronation Street, or watching someone walk into a tree.

A successful team will provide entertainment. Yet this is only a by-product to acquiring points. Sunderland supporters witnessed plenty of exciting, creative football when Manchester City came to town, but in retrospect would have preferred another goalless draw.

We have regularly advocated a bolder approach, but only because we feel this is Sunderland’s best option in their efforts to clamber up the league.

The problem is that they only have so many goal scorers (one) and creativity in the squad. The manager could be more daring, but his options are rather limited.

Do not pin too many hopes on the January transfer window. There is unlikely to be much money to spend. No player who left the club in the summer was exchanged for a significant fee.

The £14m that was not spent on Fabio Borini may still be available, but not much more, if that. Books must be balanced. Even without considering the UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations, it is naive and a little childish to think that Ellis Short should “just open his cheque book”.

In 2015, £14m is about the going rate for a decent Premier League striker, like Borini or Steven Fletcher. If that is all Sunderland have to spend, should they then go shopping for a forward, bearing in mind the lack of depth in other parts of the team?

Occasionally, bargains can be found but it is best not to rely on this. Recent experience suggests that spending five or six million on a striker is likely to be a waste of time – and money. Three of the four permitted loan signings have already been made.

Of course, Sunderland can raise cash by selling. But the squad is too small to part with any of the better players. There is also a problem with selling the less gifted ones. Think of a player you would like to sell; then ask yourself how much you would expect another club to pay for him.

Despite conversations we hear about whom Sunderland should “just buy” and “just sell” it is never that easy (agents and players ensure this with their biannual brinksmanship and their sheer greed). Incredible as it may seem, taxi drivers who suggest otherwise are actually wrong.

Taxi drivers exaggerate the simplicity and ease of everything – except taxi driving.

STILL, we are in no position to prevent anyone from continuing to spout that “everyone except Sunderland just goes out and buys players”.

The other pearl, that you must have heard, is: “Sunderland go out and buy injured players. No one else does.”

“Got a crock? Sunderland will have him. How much do you want?”

We all have our misgivings, but to suppose that that the club actively seeks to recruit the lame and the sick is, to say the least, a leap of imagination. Managers may gamble on the fitness of a player with a long injury record, but that is not quite the same.

It is true that recent signings Jack Rodwell, Ricky Álvarez and Billy Jones have at various times been injured or not match-fit. However, this was not a contractual obligation – it was bad luck.

But this “only happens at Sunderland.” Obviously. Look at the signings made by other Premier League sides in the summer; every man jack of them brimming with vitality and possessing constitutions of quartz.

The only exceptions are Mathieu Debuchy at Arsenal (out since September), Mohamed Diamé and Robert Snodgrass at Hull City (out for one and six months respectively), Matthew Upson at Leicester (yet to play for the club after sustaining a foot injury pre-season), Daley Blind, Ángel Fabián Di María, Luke Shaw and Radamel Falcao at Manchester United (an outlay of zillions and none of them fit), Siem de Jong at Newcastle (out since a training injury in September), £10m Sandro at QPR (out until next year), Victor Moses and Peter Odemwingie at Stoke (both out for months) and Federico Fernández at Swansea (out since November 2 with a calf problem).

And these are only the crocked players who were signed in the last transfer window. There are currently 97 Premier League players who are either injured or doubtful for this weekend.

So next time someone tells you that “only Sunderland” sign players who are injured as soon as the ink is dry, remind him that other taxi firms are available.

WHILE Sunderland will be satisfied with a point at Anfield, their supporters, like all football people, will be sleepless with anxiety about the current plight of Liverpool. Worried sick.

Before the previous Liverpool-Sunderland game in April, Gus Poyet annoyed the home fans with a comment that was not actually calculated to provoke. But he underestimated a talent for locating offence where none was intended.

Poyet dared to say: “Without Suarez, they would probably be in mid-table.”

The peckish striker has since moved to Barcelona and, almost half-way through the next season, Liverpool sit proudly in ninth position with games against Manchester United and Arsenal coming up; so they showed Gus.

I was unable to watch the Reds’ Champions League game with FC Basel last night as it clashed with Barely Legal Drivers. But we were fascinated to note that they had marched into the knockout stage/been eliminated (someone get a works experiencer to find out – I’ve got a darts match).

But Brendan Rodgers is under increasing pressure at Anfield and Sunderland have not helped. This is a crisis for all of us to ponder. In case you need an update:

Special club.... special city.... Bill Shankly.... 1977.... Anfield boot room.... not good enough for Liverpool.... Bob Paisley.... never walk alone.... Kop End.... Stevie G.... bombed our chippy.... George and Ringo.... greatest supporters.... the Liverpool way....

Apologies for any omissions, or for any perceived flippancy in the last paragraph. Not that Liverpool fans would mind. After all, they have a great sense of humour.

If Liverpool have beaten Basel (Has that young ‘un found out yet? I’ve got to be at the Hastings Hill in 20 minutes), then it is theoretically possible that they could end the season both as European champions and a relegated club.

Neither event is very likely, but if either were to occur, then we can be confident that the national media will stoically ignore the millions of football fans who do not care one way or the other what happens to Liverpool; who do not have the decency to be obsessed with all that goes on at that club. Weirdoes.

The rest of us can revel in regular reminders that.... special club.... special city.... Bill Shankly.... 1977....

ON a related topic, can anyone explain why commentators and pundits routinely inform us that Liverpool fans are “knowledgeable”?

What do they know that supporters of other clubs don’t? And how does anyone know how much knowledge Liverpool fans have? Was there a quiz or something, because it completely passed me by?

I can’t answer any of these questions, so I suggest you ask someone from Liverpool. Apparently they’re very knowledgeable.

HERE is an established fact. When a random manager makes disrespectful comments about another club, he is said to have “slagged off the opposition”.

When Chelsea mouth José Mourinho does this, it’s “mind games.”

A slavering media has declared him a genius because of this. Indeed, the man is hardly a dunce, but his jabbering about Newcastle last week was not terribly bright either.

Speaking of the Sports Direct Arena, he said: “There are a few stadiums in this country where clearly, when they see the Chelsea shirts, they play the game of their lives.

“When they (Newcastle) play against other teams they look like they’re playing friendlies.”

Was the idea that Newcastle would go out to prove him wrong by letting Chelsea win 6-0? Unless I am missing something, insulting your opponents, thereby presenting them with extra incentive and allowing Manchester City to claw back five points in a week, does not sound like much of a plan.

The good thing about the bad result for Chelsea (other than it being a bad result for Chelsea) is that we could enjoy the traditional post-match gibberish that José gives us after a bad result. A week earlier he had accused Sunderland of defending.

This time it was something about ball boys.

OTHER news ....

THE man in charge of allowing Kevin Nolan to obstruct the goalkeeper at every opportunity on Saturday is Phil Dowd. Good luck sir.

Finally, we know it will be cold and that the opposition is of minimal interest. But let’s have a decent attendance at the FA Cup third round for a change.