Analysis - Sunderland need injection of quality, rather than huff and puff

Connor Wickham
Connor Wickham
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Dick Advocaat may be the most confident man on Wearside that Sunderland will avoid any dramatic late twists in the relegation dogfight.

Rather than brooding over Sunderland’s squandered opportunity to guarantee Premier League football on Saturday, a merry Advocaat was laughing, smiling and posing for photos in the Stadium of Light foyer after publicly declaring that he had “no doubts” that the Black Cats would survive.

After 16 draws this season, equalling the Premier League record of 17 would be an accolade worth having

He wasn’t a million miles away from the justifiably chuffed Leicester players emerging from the away dressing room clutching bottles of Heineken.

Perhaps Advocaat is right to be chirpy. Perhaps the rest of us have simply got used to a life of preparing ourselves for the worst when it comes to Sunderland and relegation battles.

Certainly, it will now take a dramatic swing of results for Hull and Newcastle to both overtake a Sunderland side who have two bites of the cherry to register an elusive point that would take them over the finishing line.

After 16 draws this season, equalling the Premier League record of 17 would be an accolade worth having.

But if Sunderland do extend their top-flight tenure to nine years, it will not be with a swagger. They haven’t had one all season.

Premier League survival would HAVE to be a platform for fulfilling what it says in the brochure about this being the best league in the world, because for much of this season it has been decidedly ordinary.

For the umpteenth time, Saturday was another of those scrappy, ugly encounters boasting precious little goalmouth action.

If there hadn’t been so much tension accompanying the game, or the stakes so high, then many in the Stadium of Light’s second biggest crowd of the campaign could have been forgiven for nodding off.

It has been like that too often over recent seasons.

Advocaat has had the right idea in getting Sunderland back to playing with more intensity and at a quicker tempo, yet, for all the Black Cats’ huff and puff, there was only really Danny Graham’s first-half volley to show for their efforts.

Now, being “alright”, “ordinary” and “average” may be sufficient for Sunderland to stop up, given Hull’s slump at the worst possible time and Newcastle’s implosion.

It shouldn’t necessarily be a criticism of these players either.

While there have been rare highs this season – most notably the derby double – and a few awful lows – the collapses against Southampton, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace – Sunderland have generally looked like a team just about good enough to stop up.

The direction and application went missing during the final month or so of Gus Poyet’s reign, but it has been clear over recent weeks that, unlike those up the road, these players do care and are giving their all to keep the club in the Premier League.

It’s not determination that’s missing, nor particularly defensive resilience, even though Sunderland will need to overhaul their back line this summer, regardless of which division they are in.

No, it’s guile and pace which Sunderland lack, and have lacked for the last couple of years.

That has to be addressed at the end of the season, when there will inevitably need to be at least half-a-dozen fresh faces arriving at the Stadium of Light.

In fairness, the absence of Emanuele Giaccherini for much of the season has not helped – even if he hasn’t consistently proved he’s the answer – while Ricky Alvarez has proved a huge let-down and Adam Johnson’s contribution has been affected by his legal issues.

The loss of Jordi Gomez to a fractured knee-cap on the eve of Saturday’s encounter deprived Advocaat of the one remaining element in his starting XI who is capable of treating the ball with a bit of love and care too.

Replacement Liam Bridcutt failed to handle that burden and patience began to ebb away in the crowd each time he was caught on the ball or produced a sloppy pass.

In fairness, Bridcutt wasn’t the only one.

Both full-backs looked far more hesitant in constantly bombing forwards than they had been in previous games, while Connor Wickham was consistently inconsistent with his control. If Wickham wants to fulfil his potential, then these are the games where he has to shine.

It was only when Johnson entered the fray that Sunderland looked like they might find the breakthrough, with the winger restoring some of the vigour which had ebbed away after the opening 15 minutes.

It would be a bold move from Dick Advocaat to start Johnson in midfield at Arsenal or Chelsea, but he’s made an impression from the bench in each of the last two games and is clearly pushing hard for a place in the side.

But, like so many visiting sides to the Stadium of Light over recent months, Leicester knew that if they put men behind the ball and doubled up on Johnson, they could largely negate Sunderland’s attacking threat.

The Foxes did that excellently. The use of three centre-halves has clearly injected some much-needed resilience into their ranks.

Sunderland will now look to do similar at Arsenal on Wednesday, to ensure they avoid any last-day nerves.

In a season of ordinariness, that would be an extraordinary ending.