Chris Young column - No easy answer for Poyet in goalkeeper decision

Vito Mannone
Vito Mannone
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THE 2,742nd re-run of Inspector Morse on ITV3 would have been preferable to sifting through the wreckage of the south coast massacre.

Only sadists, the inebriated or fans of slapstick could have enjoyed proceedings at St Mary’s.

But it doesn’t take a super sleuth of Morse’s stature to deduce the tension between Gus Poyet and Sunderland’s hierarchy over the fractious topic of recruitment.

It seemed to be almost omnipresent during the summer, fluttered around at the end of the transfer window and was again touched upon by Poyet in his radio interviews on Saturday, albeit his head was swimming at the time.

Clearly Sunderland’s squad is a couple of bodies short, particularly at the back.

A total of six defenders – when three of them are an ageing Wes Brown, an injury prone Billy Jones and a crocked Sebastian Coates – is just not sufficient.

Poyet cannot hide behind that shortcoming completely after he was the one itching to bring fellow Uruguayan Coates from Liverpool.

But the responsibility for the shambles at Southampton has to be a collective one; from dressing room, to dug-out, to boardroom.

However, while Poyet only really has two realistic outfield options against Arsenal this weekend – Adam Johnson and Jack Rodwell – to change a side thumped 8-0, he does have a decision to make in goal.

Since the summer, Poyet has maintained that the selection of both his centre-forward and his goalkeeper would be largely black and white issues.

Poyet’s policy boils down to strikers who score goals, stay in the team. Goalkeepers who are conceding don’t.

It was arguably the biggest selection decision of pre-season for Poyet to judge between last season’s Player of the Year Vito Mannone and fresh recruit Costel Pantilimon, who had clearly penned a Bosman deal with Sunderland in the expectation of playing some games.

Aside from the opening day nerves at West Brom, Mannone has largely justified that decision – conceding just one in three prior to Saturday.

But after Mannone became the first Sunderland goalkeeper to ship eight in 32 years, then Costel Pantilimon has every right to bang his giant-sized fist against Poyet’s door.

Is it that simple though?

Yes, Mannone was at fault for at least a couple of the goals at St Mary’s and his confidence will inevitably have dipped as a consequence.

Even if the protective barrier in front of him was pathetic, Mannone is the type of character who will be analysing his contribution for all eight of Southampton’s goals.

But to drop the Italian would make him the scapegoat for the rout.

Is that fair? Not at all. There were far more prominent culprits.

But then again, football is not fair.

Pantilimon was brought in to foster genuine competition between Sunderland’s two front-line stoppers and the Romanian was dismayed to learn Mannone would start the season as first-choice.

Certainly, Pantilimon did not leave Manchester City to swap bench-warming for a side in the lower echelons of the Premier League.

Pantilimon will sense an opportunity.

His inclusion for the Under-21s in Monday’s 1-0 win over Leicester – where he made a couple of good saves in front of Poyet – should not necessarily be taken as a hint towards the plans for this weekend.

With Sunderland eliminated from the League Cup, Pantilimon needs opportunities to brush up on his match sharpness.

But if Poyet does keep faith with Mannone, then Pantilimon will inevitably be aggrieved and his patience will ebb away a touch further.

Likewise, if Mannone is dropped, the Italian won’t be massively chuffed.

The former Arsenal man is entitled to think he has some credit in the bank from his impressive year in the Sunderland starting XI, despite one nightmarish afternoon.

There is no obvious answer deciding between the two stoppers.

Poyet is yet to name an unchanged line-up this season and there is clearly a school of thought that those 11 who started at Southampton should be first in the queue when it comes to making amends for their actions.

However, benefits also stem from fielding those freed from the psychological sledgehammer of the St Mary’s experience. Sunderland cannot afford to have the post-traumatic jitters against a side like Arsenal.

This is where Poyet earns his money. Not even Morse could forecast with a degree of certainty what the Sunderland boss will do.