Sunderland 1-3 Stoke City: Atrocious first half display leaves Black Cats deep in relegation trouble
There has been talk in recent weeks of Sunderland slowly, but surely, turning the Stadium of Light into a fortress.
On this dismal afternoon, we saw just how flimsy the foundations are.
Outpassed, outthought, outfought, outclassed.
3-1, and it could have been worse.
Arnautovic scored two and should have had more. Peter Crouch scored one of the easiest goals of his long career.
Despite a slight improvement in the second half, Sunderland were short of ideas, class and spirit.
The first half was so poor that even their goal came from an aimless long ball. Donald Love fired down the field, seemingly with little threat to the Stoke defence. Fortunately for the hosts, as ever, Jermain Defoe remained alive and nipped in behind the defence. His finish was typically composed, stroking into the far post.
By that stage, the game had already seemed up. Stoke were launching long balls into the box at every opportunity, Sunderland's positioning and physicality found wanting time and time again. No surprise, then, that the opener game from a diagonal pass to the back post. Shaqiri found Arnautovic, who had too much time to take a touch and shoot. Mannone flicked it away with his left boot at the near post, but Stoke were quickest to react, Arnautovic hammering into the roof of the net.
That was a theme of the half. When Stoke did get it down, their passing triangles got round Sunderland so easily it felt like a training exercise. So it was for Arnautovic's second. The Austrian picked the ball up outside the box, coasting away from Jason Denayer and playing a simple 1-2 with Shaqiri.. The same again, then, with Peter Crouch, and another finish at Mannone's near post.
It could, and should, have been three soon after. Xherdan Shaqiri left one-on-one after Papy Djilobodji inexplicably failed to close him down. Mannone gathered that time, but was fortunate soon after when he fumbled the Swiss winger's drive onto the post.
It was coming. On the 33rd minute, another diagonal ball into the box. Crouch's run wasn't tracked, and Mannone got nowhere near him as he nodded home.
In amidst this wreckage Sunderland had created next to nothing, apart from a Jack Rodwell drive straight at Lee Grant. They were giving the ball away constantly, firing numerous long balls into the channels or the hands of Grant in the Stoke goal. The crowd were understandably restless, stirred only as half-time approached when Sunderland finally began to land some tackles.
There was, at least, a flicker of life at the start of the second half. Fabio Borini forced a save from Grant with a firm shot, Seb Larsson curled one over from a decent position on the edge of the box. Love, who had found the going tough in the first 45, was starting to win challenges and make some encouraging forays forward.
Stoke, however, never looked in serious danger, and were still creating good openings of their own. Charlie Adam flashed a free-kick just wide and on the hour Arnautovic should have had a third. Again, he ghosted clear of the Sunderland defence, but this time on his right foot he could only fire wide.
Sunderland should have reduced the deficit to one goal, finally working an opportunity to get more bodies in the final third. They worked the ball into Rodwell's feet but with a clear sight of goal, his connection was poor and the chance was gone.
From there on in, it was too comfortable for the visitors. Sunderland flickered briefly, Jason Denayer heading over from a corner.
But in truth they never threatened to land an unlikely result, one they wouldn't have deserved.
Sunderland: Mannone, Love, O'Shea, Djilobodji, Van Aanholt, Larsson, Rodwell, Denayer, Borini, Januzaj, Defoe
Subs: Mika, Jones, Manquillo, Honeyman, Asoro, Maja, Embleton
Stoke City: Grant, Johnson, Martins Indi, Shawcross, Pieters, Whelan, Adam, Allen, Shaqiri, Arnautovic, Crouch
Subs: Given, Bardsley, Muniesa, Afellay (Adam, 67), Imbula, Taylor, Ngoy (Shaqiri, 88)
Bookings: Adam, 55 Van Aanholt, 72 Januzaj, 90
Attendance: 42, 722