Cats Eye View: Return of midfield cavalry can't come quickly enough for Sunderland
David Moyes is banking on Sunderland stringing together a winning run in April in order to stay up.
Sunderland have it all to do given the results since the turn of the year, with the Black Cats securing only one win in 2017 so far - the stunning 4-0 demolition of Crystal Palace.
The latest defeat coming against Pep Guardiola’s City, albeit Sunderland at least showed plenty of fight and were the better team for the opening 40 minutes.
Yet, once Sergio Aguero had poked City ahead, defeat seemed inevitable with City not having to get out of second gear second half.
The way Sunderland initially took the game to the visitors was promising but ultimately the Black Cats didn’t have enough in the tank to maintain their high-pressing game.
The stats won’t have come as a surprise to Moyes, ruthlessly effective City managed 718 passes compared to Sunderland’s 287 with the visitors enjoying 71 per cent of the ball.
They had twice the number of touches as Sunderland yet until Aguero stole a yard on a flat-footed Lamine Kone, Sunderland were well in the game and looked dangerous going forward.
The problem is sustaining that for 90 minutes.
Against Everton, Sunderland’s midfield was dominated, with Darron Gibson, Seb Larsson and Didier Ndong largely ineffective.
Against City, all three were much-improved, with Sunderland winning 25 tackles - Gibson and Larsson doing their best to disrupt City and win the ball back quickly.
The problem Sunderland faced is what they did when they had the ball. Too many passes going astray, with the Sunderland midfield and forwards all guilty.
With key midfielders Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff out for long spells, Sunderland’s midfield has been patched up all campaign.
There hasn’t been a settled combination and it has become Moyes’ biggest headache.
The goalkeeper and striking positions pick themselves, with the defence looking more organised and compact with John O’Shea alongside Kone.
But central midfield has been a problem. Despite their gallant efforts against City, both Larsson and Gibson’s best years are behind them.
The workrate, commitment and endeavour can’t be questioned but Sunderland need more quality in midfield if they are to beat the odds and stay up.
The return of Jan Kirchhoff cannot come quickly enough. Is too much pressure being put on his shoulders given his lengthy lay-off?
Perhaps, but Sunderland are better with him in the side and they are relying on him providing a calming influence in midfield, breaking up play and helping set up attacks.
On-loan Jason Denayer has also been a huge loss, having missed Everton due to illness and City as he couldn’t play against his parent club.
Moyes would have played Denayer in midfield against Everton.
Quick, full of energy, defensive-minded and good at reading the game, Denayer is a good centre-half but more than capable of helping prop up Sunderland’s midfield.
Playing him in the holding role also gives Sunderland added flexibility in that he can drop into a back three if needed mid-match.
Wahbi Khazri’s chances of a start are slim, with Moyes opting against bringing in George Honeyman or Lynden Gooch against City.
His options will be boosted further when Burnley arrive a week on Saturday with the return of Kirchhoff and Denayer.
The cavalry is coming and they can’t come back quickly enough.
Somehow, Sunderland simply must spark a winning run.