TEN of Sunderland’s starting XI have started the last six games. None can complain if that run is not extended to a magnificent seven.
The benefits of a settled side have been self-evident for Martin O’Neill, who has been able to foster a resilient, tough to break down unit, eminently capable of overriding their striking deficiencies by finding the net on the counter-attack.
Yet the next six days present O’Neill with a selection conundrum ahead of his first meeting against Newcastle United as Sunderland boss.
Does he give a second chance to those who had previously served him so well and brush off Saturday’s rout as one of those quick-to-forget afternoons? Or is fresh blood needed to give renewed impetus to Sunderland’s top eight bid after back-to-back league defeats?
Defeat at the Hawthorns was not attributable to individual errors or formation flaws – even if Roy Hodgson did concede afterwards that he had expected Sunderland to resurrect a 4-4-2 system after stringing five across midfield to combat Arsenal.
The 4-0 rout was a collective slump where every facet of Sunderland’s game was inferior to an impressive West Brom outfit. The marking was lax, the passing was slack, the decision-making was flawed, the finishing was sloppy and the tackling was half-hearted.
With West Brom moving the ball at tempo with some eye-catching one and two touch play, particularly the elusive attacking trio of James Morrison, Peter Odemwingie and Marc Antoine Fortune, the Black Cats wouldn’t have been aggrieved if it had been a six or seven-goal winning margin.
If permitted, O’Neill could have been forgiven for using his entire bench at the interval, while another half-dozen could easily have been sacrificed instead of Jack Colback, Kieran Richardson and Seb Larsson.
But the three who were introduced – Fraizer Campbell, Nicklas Bendtner and Wayne Bridge – did provide food for thought over whether they should start at the Sports Direct Arena.
Certainly, there has to be an expectation now that O’Neill will revert to a two-man strike force in the derby, rather than relying on Stephane Sessegnon as a lone striker, with the Benin international distinctly out-of-soughts in the Black Country.
It was too easy in the opening 45 minutes for West Brom’s defenders to outmuscle Sessegnon, albeit the service which came his way was haphazard.
If the diminutive former Paris Saint-Germain is to be used as a lone striker, he needs to be in a razor sharp mood to spin away from the attentions of his marker and make one of those characteristic mazy runs.
When Sessegnon’s first touch is lax or he fails to lift his head by trying to do too much, as was often the case at the Hawthorns, Sunderland have no focal point and a fresh wave of attack laps at the defensive shore.
Both Bendtner and Campbell added far more of an attacking edge in the second half, albeit Sunderland were going for broke, but it was the latter who worried the West Brom far more significantly.
If it hadn’t been for erroneous officiating, Campbell would have added a third goal of the season to his name – a tally that match Bendtner’s – while the newest member of the England squad provides that injection of pace that Sunderland lack and defenders find so distasteful.
Colback and Larsson, who looks increasingly in need of a breather, must be under the more severe pressure of losing their place to a striker, particularly as Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner were the only two Sunderland players to emerge with a modicum of credit, even if the latter seemed intent on shooting regardless of other options.
But while that appears to be the most obvious of potential changes at the artist formerly known as St James’s Park, O’Neill may also be tempted to hand Wayne Bridge a more fulfilling role after loitering on the fringes since his deadline day loan move.
Richardson arguably endured his toughest game of the season against Odemwingie, who seems intent on taking Tim Cahill’s mantle as Sunderland’s nemesis with his fourth in four outings against the Black Cats.
From a defensive view, Odemwingie nullified the attacking threat of Sunderland’s left-hand side by tirelessly tracking back to ensure there were two men on James McClean, together with restricting Richardson to his own half.
The former West Brom loanee never looked comfortable with the deployment of Odemwingie on the right-hand side, unsure whether to stick tight to the Nigerian or sit back and challenge him to get past.
That uncertainty was part of the reason for the breakdown in communication with Michael Turner which presented Odemwingie with the softest of openers to settle any trepidation among the West Brom faithful, who hadn’t seen a home win since November.
Bridge was neat and tidy in his 30-minute run-out, yet it was difficult to judge the former England international on his contribution given the game was already settled by that point.
O’Neill won’t overlook that Richardson has rarely let Sunderland down this season and after all, is still a relative novice as a left-back.
But Sunderland cannot afford a repeat of the defensive clangers when they head to Tyneside, nor the utter lack of cohesion going forward.
Whatever the team O’Neill selects against the neighbours, it’s comprehensible that Sunderland can be as bad again.