Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Self-harming Sunderland need points before it’s too late

Sunderland's Steven Fletcher controls the ball under pressure from Michael Dawson.
Sunderland's Steven Fletcher controls the ball under pressure from Michael Dawson.
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FIVE OWN goals, seven conceded from set-pieces and a staggering total of 30 shipped from just 15 games.

Add to the mix, precious leads shipped in double-quick time against two members of the top six last week and Sunderland are unquestionably the Premier League’s crown princes of self harm.

The haul of own goals alone would be sufficient for them to lie joint 13th in the Premier League’s top scorers chart.

As a thoroughly dejected Gus Poyet faced the press on Saturday night, he looked like a man in need of painkillers for his sore forehead after repeatedly banging it against the brick wall.

Poyet has conducted himself admirably during his two months in the Stadium of Light hotseat.

He has applied common sense to a shambolic situation and, arguably for the first time since Steve Bruce was in charge, Sunderland have a manager with a long-term plan for the team’s playing style and the club’s development.

As an example, Poyet spent Friday afternoon watching the Under-21s in a training ground friendly against Gateshead, rather than settling for the warmth of his office.

But that coveted attribute of “balance” is something which continues to elude Poyet.

After noting how Sunderland had conceded 16 goals in seven matches prior to his arrival and then shipping four in his first game in charge at Swansea, Poyet understandably set the defence as his first priority.

It looked as if the Black Cats had grasped their defensive responsibilities after a first away clean sheet of the season at Aston Villa nine days ago.

But with Sunderland needing victories, not draws, to get out of the mire, Poyet inevitably needed to be ambitious in his strategy.

The result? Back to square one. Six goals conceded in just two games, albeit against quality opposition.

It should have been more on Saturday after Spurs spurned a succession of gilt-edged second-half opportunities to add to their advantages when Sunderland looked fatigued and thoroughly dispirited after John O’Shea’s desperately soft own goal put the visitors in front.

It was as glum as Sunderland have looked since the rout at Swansea.

The timing of the goals, and the awful manner in which they were conceded, knocked all the stuffing out of the Wearsiders.

The individual errors which are contagious throughout this team have to stop if Sunderland are to harbour any chance of staying up.

Fresh faces in January may be the only cure.

But if Sunderland can permanently shore up the foundations, how do they go about getting the goals to remain in the Premier League?

Pairing Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher together for the first time since the nine-man debacle at Hull City did not convince that it was the right solution.

It wasn’t an orthodox 4-4-2 from Poyet, with Altidore moving between the lines and given licence to collect the ball from a deeper role and run at Spurs’ defence.

With Adam Johnson tucked inside from the left too, there was a fluidity around Sunderland’s formation, rather than the often predictability which surrounds 4-4-2.

In the first half, Altidore was a constant menace for Tottenham after receiving a clear confidence boost from a maiden Premier League goal for the Black Cats against Chelsea in midweek.

The American injected bursts of acceleration in a game played at a desperately slow tempo and provided a crucial contribution in the 15-pass move which saw Johnson break the deadlock.

But there was little interplay with Fletcher, who was distinctly off-colour.

The Scot’s control and distribution was poor and he perhaps needs the boost of goal himself after drawing a blank in his last six top-flight outings.

Playing two strikers proved fruitless in a desperately poor opening 25 minutes to the second half, too, when Sunderland’s ball retention was blasphemous towards Poyet’s philosophy.

There was no service to the front pair and Altidore was increasingly forced to drop midway inside his own half to even get a touch – a position where it was impossible for him to influence a comeback.

The 4-5-1 system which Poyet has predominantly favoured remains the most fluent and effective formation for the Black Cats and the head coach may have to concede that it is either Fletcher or Altidore in the starting XI.

After his performances over the last two games, it has to be Altidore at the moment.

Despite Sunderland’s sub-standard second-half display though, the hosts should still have been given the opportunity to equalise from the penalty spot, only to be let down by more refereeing incompetency.

“Perfectly-placed official somehow managing to blunder” is becoming a familiar theme for the Black Cats.

But Lee Mason’s baffling inability to spot the most blatant of handballs by Spurs substitute Sandro cannot deflect from the big picture.

Sunderland have been well-positioned in back-to-back home games, yet managed to blow it both times through suicidal defending.

They can’t do it any more. Poyet’s side are running out of games.

After coming away empty-handed against Chelsea and Spurs, steam is whistling out of the pressure cooker for the next four – three of which are against bottom-seven peers West Ham, Norwich and Cardiff.

Realistically, anything less than two wins before the end of 2013 – which marks the halfway point of the campaign – will leave the Black Cats with too much to do.

If Sunderland can record a minimum of six points though, a target of seven wins from the last 19 games is far from insurmountable, particularly with a far more favourable set of home fixtures.

Inevitably, there was further frustration among supporters yesterday when Fulham became the fourth of Sunderland’s relegation rivals to win over the weekend.

But it doesn’t really matter what their peers are doing.

Sunderland must set aside the harrowing statistics and actually put points on the board.