Chris Coleman struggles to find the answers but his ebullience remains Sunderland's best hope

Chris Coleman looked as dejected as he ever has done as he picked through the bones of the 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa in midweek.

Friday, 9th March 2018, 8:00 am
Updated Friday, 9th March 2018, 8:50 am
Sunderland manager Chris Coleman.

Holding court in the Stadium of Light tunnel, the Sunderland boss admitted that he was in new territory as a manager.

It was less about Sunderland’s continuing poor form and more about the manner of their performances.

Two of the goals conceded were particularly galling for a former centre-back.

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How could Sunderland show such passivity in defending their own box? Letting the ball bounce for the opener, and leaving two players unmarked for the second.

It is often said that the great players struggle going into management, unable to understand why players of lesser ability can’t execute the things they found simple.

Coleman would not put himself in that bracket, but clearly he is baffled by mentality he sees in this squad. In both boxes, there is a timidity at worrying odds to his own character.

He would be the first admit that, right now, he is not finding the answers.

Coleman broke off from his post-match duties briefly to share a hug with James Chester as the Villa defender headed for the team bus.

Chester had been one of the unsung heroes of Coleman’s Wales team, absolutely imperious in Euro 2016, his defensive numbers stacking up alongside the very best.

When Chester went to sign for Villa, Coleman gave his backing, but admitted he felt that the centre-back was too good for the Championship.

There was a certain irony that when Coleman made his next move just over a year later, many were saying the same thing.

Coleman breezed into the Academy of Light to the surprise and delight of most.

When he addressed the press for the first time, the media suite was packed to the rafters.

His decision to head north felt like a much-needed reminder of the size and potential of the club, something that was fast becoming lost.

Sunderland were drifting from the national consciousness, but, after the scenes that followed the win at Burton, things seemed to be moving in the right direction again.

So far, Coleman has found himself unable to shift the needle and he was not helped by the January window.

The case was made to club owner Ellis Short that it made more sense to protect his asset by allowing some investment in the team, reducing the risk of a financially damaging relegation.

It was to no avail.

Coleman was expecting as such, but it was a difficult window, compounded when he lost his two most experienced strikers within a fortnight.

Just over three months into his tenure and the team still lacks a clear identity.

Coleman will know he has to find the right balance to save the team, but it is not an easy task, with Sunderland suffering from another botched summer window that left their squad unbalanced.

How do you get the right system and style from the current crop?

Coleman has favoured, where possible, playing out from the back and a patient build-up.

His defenders, however, seem uncomfortable on the ball and, without the injured Darron Gibson, there is no natural playmaker.

The obvious solution then, would be to try and draw teams into a direct contest.

Yet Coleman’s attackers are players who want to play off the shoulder and the team physically does not have a great deal of presence in the final third.

Little wonder then, Sunderland have often this season looked confused and lacking direction.

There is an obvious mentality issue, but a number of footballing ones, too.

It was the same for predecessor Simon Grayson, though he himself admitted to being a pragmatist who had little intention or desire to instill a playing philosophy.

With just 10 games to go to keep Sunderland in the Championship, Coleman has few cards left to play.

The woeful showing against Aston Villa will surely lead to a run in the side for Jonny Williams, who at least offers some composure in midfield, while Kazenga LuaLua might add some strength and individual skill in the final third.

Gibson and Paddy McNair will help when they return, too, but whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

Coleman has not had the impact he hoped for and fears grow that the situation he inherited will be too much to overcome.

In the aftermath of the Villa defeat, James Gheerbrant of The Times tweeted to point out that of the 10 nominated for FIFA’s 2016 Coach of the Year, all but Coleman and Luis Enrique (seemingly Antonio Conte’s scheduled replacement at Chelsea) are now managing at an elite level.

The awe and excitement that greeted Coleman’s arrival on Wearside has given way to a predictable melancholy.

Clearly, a reckoning awaits and Coleman himself sees four scenarios, in which Sunderland either stay up or don’t, and Ellis Short either sells or he doesn’t.

Each one brings its own insecurity and uncertainty and Coleman will want reassurances.
What the early months of his tenure has shown is that there is no magic wand, no single solution.

The rebuilding job is a tough and lengthy one.

Yet here was Coleman yesterday afternoon, still ebullient, refusing to blame the injuries, refusing to blame transfers, refusing to give in, talking up Sunderland’s potential.

Sunderland need investment and primarily players who can give the spine of the team a more powerful and pacy profile.

Yet the club also needs a change of culture, better accountability, greater resilience and good coaching.

Coleman has brought all of these and, while it is clear he needs help, there has still been so much about his approach to like.

If results have been disappointng, he unquestionably remains the club’s best asset and the best chance of beating the drop.