Why the return of key trio offers Sunderland genuine hope in Premier survival scrap
Sunderland's Premier League status has rarely been under such threat as it is now.
With other sides finding momentum and the Black Cats badly short of it, hope is in short supply.
There are two reasons why despair hasn’t set in entirely; the fixture list between now and the end of the season is kind and there is hope that Jan Kirchhoff, Lee Cattermole and Victor Anichebe can return to make an impact on the rest of the season.
So what impact can we realistically expect them to have?
Much, of course, depends on how quickly they can get up to speed, if at all, but their respective records in the Sunderland team do offer hope.
Sunderland have won five games this season. Victor Anichebe has started four of them. There is a danger of overstating his importance and clearly the sample size is small, but the Nigerian’s strength and presence clearly gives Sunderland an outlet and allows them to function as a Premier League team.
Without him, they have four points from 11 games, a pattern that would see them pushing the record for the lowest ever points total.
Their loss percentage is higher when he plays, but that must be balanced against the fact that his first appearances came late on off the bench, when the game was already lost.
You would expect over a longer period his influence to be less stark statistically.
Sunderland were hammered when Anichebe played at Swansea and well on their way to being when he was substituted at Burnley, so his presence does not solve all.
What is clearly true is that particularly at home, where three of those four wins came, he helps Sunderland spend longer periods in the opposition half and create pressure.
The former West Brom and Everton striker’s presence brings the best out of Jermain Defoe, who always looks likely but never more so than when the 28-year-old is alongside him.
It would be a big boost and a genuine source for optimism if he could get back for key home games against Swansea and Bournemouth.
Anichebe P 11 W4 D0 L7 Win 36%
Sunderland since his debut P22 W5 D3 L14 Win 23%
The German’s influence on the side is probably clearer to the eye than it is on paper.
Kirchhoff surprised everyone by being a regular in Sam Allardyce’s side last season after arriving with a history of injuries, and played a part in every Sunderland win between making his debut and the end of that campaign.
He missed two games, the Black Cats drawing them both.
That reflects the wide range of factors that sparked Sunderland’s upturn in fortune, but the former Bayern Munich man’s positioning and awareness was a big reason why Lamine Kone and Younes Kaboul were able to perform so well in defence.
Sunderland’s improvement on the counter-attack last season also owed a good deal to the German, whose precision in possession was a big boost.
In Kirchhoff, Lee Cattermole and Yann M’Vila, Sunderland had one of their strongest midfields in the modern era, capable of hanging in and staying disciplined when under pressure and opening up the opposition when the chance presented.
The big concern is that this season, Kirchhoff has, quite clearly, not got going at all.
His introduction against Leicester made a difference, forcing an own goal from a corner, and set-pieces are one area where Moyes believes he can make the difference.
He will certainly improve Sunderland’s ball retention, which has been woeful at times this season, but his record this campaign shows he is searching for last season’s level.
If managed well, the 26-year-old can be a boost for Sunderland, but it is a big ask for a player who missed out on pre-season and does not have the all important match fitness.
Kirchhoff P22 W5 D8 L9 Win 23%
Sunderland since his debut P44 W9 D14 L22 20%
Going back to the 2013/14 season, arguably Sunderland’s greatest escape to date, and it is clear that the Black Cats are a better, and more successful, side when Cattermole is involved.
There are many eye-catching stats to back that up.
One is that last season, Sunderland did not win any of the seven Premier League games in which Cattermole didn’t feature.
Indeed, they lost five of them.
The season before that, Cattermole featured in six of Sunderland’s seven league wins, despite missing 10 matches.
In 2013/14, when he was famously out of favour to begin with under Paolo Di Canio, he missed 14 games yet still played in eight of Sunderland’s 10 wins.
So why is his presence so important?
First and foremost is his energy.
Sunderland have struggled to maintain their intensity in midfield, never more apparent than in their struggles late in the games against Southampton and Manchester City in recent weeks.
The Teessider’s ability to break up the opposition attacks can help Sunderland be better and quicker to counter.
When the Black Cats have played well this season, it is often when summer signing Didier Ndong has been at his best and most prominent, playing a similar role to Cattermole on song.
Perhaps, too, it demonstrates that Cattermole in underrated on the ball.
Outside of Wearside, the 28-year-old former Wigan and Middlesbrough man’s passing is not thought of highly, but his habit of moving it on quickly, rather than making things complicated, can be a blessing.
There are the intangibles, as well.
His leadership on the field and in the dressing room, and the way his presence brings the fans closer to the team and the pitch.
The big fear, of course, is that by the time he gets right back up to speed, which often takes a few games, the situation could be irretrievable.
Cattermole P31 W9 D10 L12 Win 29%
Sunderland P38 W9 D12 L17 Win 23%
Cattermole P28 W6 D15 L7 Win 21%
Sunderland P38 W7 D17 L14 Win 18%
Cattermole P24 W8 D5 L11 Win 33%
Sunderland P38 W10 D8 L20 Win 26%