Phil Smith: Which Sunderland will turn up at Everton? Tenacious or meek?

Sunderland had looked in some sort of control.

Monday, 13th February 2017, 11:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 28th February 2017, 11:32 am
Jason Denayer curses his luck after conceding an own goal to make it 3-0 to Southampton. Picture by Frank Reid

Under pressure from a Southampton press, Jason Denayer and Vito Mannone under pressure. A chipped, high-risk, but ultimately succesful one-two, over the head of Manolo Gabbiadini.

Suddenly Adnan Januzaj was advancing down the left flank, surging past a plethora of Southampton players.

Jermain Defoe couldn’t quite get his feet sorted in the box, the ball drifting out for a goal kick. It was a sweeping counter from back to front, like the brilliant moves that led to the third and fourth goals at Selhurst Park just a week previous.

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It had raised hopes that the Black Cats would pick up where they had left off, looking in control on home turf.

The demise from there on in was all the more painful for that bright start.

There was talk, back in November, that Sunderland were starting to make the Stadium of Light, if not a fortress, then a difficult place for teams to visit.

That has quickly faded. By the end of Saturday’s game, Sunderland had four attackers on the pitch, disjointed, shapeless, and with little prospect of finding a way back into the game.

At the back it was a shambles, Ryan Bertrand advancing down the left with embarrassing ease in the run-up to the third goal. For the fourth, Southampton walked it in. The back line was in no line whatsoever, gaping gaps between the defenders.

The extreme high of Selhurst Park cannot mask that this was a capitulation similar to acrimonious defeats to Arsenal, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace in recent times.

Sunderland have impressed at the Stadium of Light in 2017, but only in the games against the sides in the top six, Liverpool and Tottenham.

In those games, with expectation low and the pressure largely off, they have looked liberated by not having to force the issue or commit bodies in attack.

The backs-to-the-wall mentality has sharpened focus at the back in midfield, the kind of focus that was missing as Gabbiadini found the time to turn away from two defenders and fire home just before the half-time interval.

Just as had been the case against Stoke, left chasing the game, Sunderland were short of ideas.

Stoke’s variety, pace and creativity was leagues ahead of the Black Cats. It was the same on Saturday. Southampton came to Wearside in the midst of a poor run of form, missing defensive talisman Virgil van Dijk.

That had raised hopes, but once Gabbiadini had nudged home the opener with his arm, their greater depth and quality became clear.

Oriol Romeu, who remarkably cost the Saints just £5million last summer, was outstanding. He dominated the midfield battle, powerful and energetic. It was his superb first-time pass that broke the deadlock, switching the play out wide on the half-volley, catching Sunderland out and leaving Bertrand with space to deliver the perfect cross to the front post.

As is so often the case, Sunderland were undone by pace and fluidity in the opposition ranks, Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond dovetailing well with Gabbiadini.

The Black Cats have ground out results at time this season, particularly in a purple patch in November, but most weeks have laid bare the long-term failings in recruitment.

The brilliant Romeu was a prime example.

Everton and Manchester City await after the two-week break.

It has become impossible to predict which Sunderland will turn up. Tenacious, or meek?