Phil Smith's SAFC Analysis: Sad Sunderland looking ill-equipped for the challenge ahead, physically and technically

The tone was set from the first whistle.

Monday, 16th January 2017, 11:00 am
Sunderland keeper Vito Mannone can only watch despairingly as Stoke's opening goal hits the back of the net. Picture by Frank Reid

Sunderland giving it away cheaply, Stoke taking control, moving it quickly, with intent. That opening move didn’t lead to a goal, but a sense of inevitably pervaded a truly wretched first half.

David Moyes said he was unsure how to assess Sunderland’s performance, as it was three individual errors that undid them. That was, of course, true.

The first, a poor pass from Jason Denayer, gifting possession to Xherdan Shaqiri. At the back post, it was too easy for Marko Arnautovic to shoot once, never mind the follow-up he hammered into the net.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The second, a basic lack of concentration allowing the Austrian to start a move and ghost into the box unmarked via a pair of simple on-twos with his team-mates.

The third, a poor goalkeeping error. Vito Mannone got nowhere near the floated cross, Peter Crouch towering above him for a simple header.

Goalkeepers are so well protected by referees in situations like that, there is little excuse to come off second-best.

Yet it is difficult to agree that Sunderland’s pattern of play, in general, was capable of competing in this clash.

Right from the word go, they were second-best, the gameplan impossible to decipher and the quality badly lacking.

There was a time when Sunderland sent their squad players to Stoke City.

Only Phil Bardsley remains at the Potters, with Saturday’s galling afternoon demonstrating how far the Black Cats have fallen behind the mid-table pack. Sunderland seemed completely ill-equipped for the challenge, both physically and technically.

Stoke were dominant when it came to the 50-50 challenges and aerial duels that are so important in this division. Peter Crouch was predictably successful in his game, feeding off the constant barrage of diagonal crosses in his direction. All too often, Stoke players breezed past their opponents, or managed to fight their way out of tight corners.

Sunderland won too few of the individual battles, and it was noticeable that even Stoke’s flair players – Shaqiri, Allen, Arnautovic – won the lion’s share of their duels.

Sunderland’s chronic availability problems are now truly starting to bite.

Around them, teams are adding bodies. Swansea have signed Luciano Narsingh, with Tom Carroll and Martin Olsson soon to follow.

Crystal Palace have added Jeffrey Schlupp, Patrice Evra and Carl Jenkinson to follow.

Even Hull have added two players, in Oumar Niasse and Evandro.

How successful any of those will be remains to be seen, but it is certainly quite clear that Sunderland are in desperate need of strengthening. The absence of Victor Anichebe is hurting his team-mates.

They are not generally the most creative sides and his hold-up play gave them an out ball, a chance to clear their lines and get up the pitch.

Without him, those balls are simply being fired into vacant channels or straight to the opposition goalkeeper.

Didier Ndong’s absence is being keenly felt, too. The 4-4-2 worked well against Liverpool but without the Gabonese midfielder’s box-to-box running, the Black Cats never got their foot on the ball.

Stoke’s wise and experienced midfield trio of Charlie Adam, Glenn Whelan and Joe Allen always had an option, someone showing for the ball in a good position.

Having such complete control of the middle of the park allowed their wide players to get into the advanced, dangerous positions where they can do such damage.

The second half was an improvement, certainly the output in terms of energy and pressing far better than it had been in the opening period. Seb Larsson led the way on that front, but players like Donald Love, who looked all at sea in the opening exchanges, managed to get a foothold and stand up to the challenge.

Sunderland saw more of the ball, in better areas.

Still, it was comfortable, too comfortable, for Lee Grant in the Stoke City goal.

Fabio Borini forced a decent save at the start of the half when he was released on goal, but it was a comfortable height for the keeper at his near post. Seb Larsson spooned a good opportunity over the bar moments later and Jason Denayer came close, heading over from a Larsson flick-on.

Rodwell missed one of the best chances of the game, snatching at the ball when it broke for him in the Stoke box.

The comeback never seemed likely, with Stoke as much of a threat. Arnautovic ought to have a hat-trick, firing wide when he again strode across the Sunderland defence without the slightest attention or resistance.

In the final 10 minutes, all were suffering – players, fans, manager.

Moyes desperately needed a spark, something to switch it up, but turning to his bench found only a half-fit right-back, a right-back on loan who has struggled for minutes, a goalkeeper signed as last-minute cover and four youngsters with no Premier League experience.

It may well be that he’d have nothing to lose in throwing one of them on, but what is equally true is that the result would not have been affected.

Sunderland may well be in a better position now than they have been in previous seasons in terms of points and position in the table, but never before has the squad looked so stretched, so imbalanced.

There are players who should be fit again soon, but, Anichebe aside, they will not offer a great deal of variety.

When others around them will likely spend more and more as the month develops, the Black Cats are in danger of finding themselves underpowered.

There is still hope, of course.

Again it was one chance, one goal for Jermain Defoe, at his opportunistic best to race clear and pull Sunderland back into it just before half-time.

Understanding the situation, the fans have remained resilient and while frustration was evident here, the mood did not turn as ugly as it might have done.

The hope will be that this proves to be an aberration, the exception to Sunderland’s generally improving home form. That the physical excellence seen against Liverpool can be rediscovered.

Sunderland’s Premier League future depends on it. Here, they were second best in every department.