David Jones: Everything's in place for Sunderland to secure Premier League survival

It felt like a defeat, no actually, it felt worse than that.

Wednesday, 9th March 2016, 3:00 pm
Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce.

For the eight minutes Sunderland led at St Mary’s safety seemed within our grasp.

Alright, it was only two points dropped, but in the context of the season, our struggle and the lift which would have come from hanging onto a rare and precious away victory, it was devastating.

The performance deserved more; just as in the first half at Crystal Palace, the second half at West Ham and for most of the game against Manchester United, Sunderland looked a whole lot better than a team fighting for survival.

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We can console ourselves with that and must start favourites to win the nine game mini-league with Norwich and Newcastle, which will determine who stays and who goes.

Of course we have the experience: it was at this stage of last season that Gus Poyet was sacked after we capitulated at home to Aston Villa.

This time we’re in the fortunate position of having made that change earlier in the campaign, which means we can expect to see continued improvement from the squad as Sam Allardyce drills them on their defensive shape and from those players who arrived late in January and were asked to hit the ground running.

The flip side is that Norwich and Newcastle still have that card up their sleeve.

With our neighbours imploding, the feeling is they could jettison Steve McClaren any minute, perhaps even in the time between me writing and you reading this column.

As we ourselves have witnessed year upon year, sacking a manager generally brings with it a natural upturn in fortunes in the short term and short term is all Newcastle should be thinking of right now.

They still have all five of the other sides in the bottom six to play, but you can’t see them winning any of them with McClaren at the helm; they have fallen too far, too fast to recover without a short sharp shock.

At this stage it would be a surprise if the former England man was in the dugout for the Monday Night Football at league leaders Leicester City next week.

Norwich seem much more likely to stick with their man Alex Neil and so they should.

Yes, he’s still very much a managerial rookie, but they’d shouldn’t forget the incredible work he did to get them promoted.

They’re a funny team Norwich: at times they look excellent between both boxes, but at either end of the pitch, where it matters most, they appear to be lacking in Premier League quality.

They’re in the middle of their worst run of league form since 1946 having taken just one point from the last nine games and have lost already this year at Swansea and even more damagingly Aston Villa.

Next up for the Canaries is a home game with Manchester City, who might just sniff an outside shot at this title after all; I don’t expect Norwich to start the mini-league with a win on Saturday.

Sunderland meanwhile, have to sit on their hands for a fortnight and prepare for a derby which could shape the destiny of both giant North-East clubs.

The break is far from ideal to maintain sharpness – either side of the Newcastle game – but they can expect some intense training sessions from Allarydce and his team in the meantime.

As an aside, it was good management to leave Jermain Defoe out on Saturday; he’d missed chances in the previous two games while Fabio Borini took his opportunity from the bench.

Also an obvious tactic developing in recent matches was the use of Dame N’Doye as a means to get up the pitch through his ability in the air: he won more attacking aerial duals than any other player in the matches against Palace, West Ham and Man United.

But playing more centrally, he struggled on Saturday winning just one of his eight contests when competing with central defenders as opposed to pulling onto the left full back, who are normally shorter and less natural headers of the ball.

It’s something for Allardyce to mull over in the days ahead as he plans for the downfall of his former club at St James Park a week on Sunday.