Chris Young: Sunderland are not yet the “proper team” Ellis Short saw at Arsenal

Ola Toivonen
Ola Toivonen
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Man-for-man, this Sunderland squad is arguably better than either of the two which have secured Premier League survival in the last two years.

The likes of Yann M’Vila, Jermain Defoe, Younes Kaboul and Fabio Borini are all superior performers to predecessors such as Jack Colback, Connor Wickham, Santiago Vergini and Emanuele Giaccherini.

While the question marks over his work-rate remain, £13million summer signing Jeremain Lens clearly has an abundance of ability too, yet he didn’t even get on the pitch on Saturday.

Under Sam Allardyce’s tutelage, Sunderland have undoubtedly improved; greater defensive stability (well, apart from that awful opening 15 minutes against Watford on Saturday) better preparation, fitter players and a plan of how to achieve a positive outcome.

As Ellis Short rightly commented in his matchday programme notes, Sunderland had begun to look like a “proper team” again.

But the problem in starting to build a resiliency and cohesion from scratch, is that when the going gets tough, the lack of long-term foundations in the side are exposed.

Sunderland still lack cohesion or the collective experience of overcoming adversity.

Other than two or three of them, these players have not rubbed shoulders with each other for season upon season.

They are largely a group of individuals who have been thrown together by the recruiting policies of a succession of managers and directors of football.

Whatever the quality Allardyce has at his disposal, he is having to make the team gel together on the fly.

There are none of those seamless partnerships on the pitch which successful Sunderland sides have boasted – a Gates / Gabbiadini, Gray / Johnston or Phillips / Quinn.

Even the double acts which are in their infancy were not able to perform any duets against the Hornets.

Yann M’Vila showed no lack of effort, yet Sunderland are clearly a more rugged outfit when the French international is alongside Lee Cattermole. It gives the Black Cats the solid midfield base to control games.

Jack Rodwell produced one of his better displays in a red and white shirt when he came on alongside M’Vila, yet Ola Toivonen reverted to one of those underwhelming outings which had been too frequent prior to his Arsenal performance last weekend.

The back three’s harmony was completely ruined by the absence of the ill Younes Kaboul, with replacement Billy Jones, as at Everton, again demonstrating that he is no centre-half.

Credit to Allardyce for changing the formation so early, when other managers would have dallied until half-time, yet it had to be made given the ease with which Watford were exposing Sunderland’s defence during the opening 15 minutes.

And without the Steven Fletcher / Jermain Defoe partnership up top, there was a tentativeness around Sunderland’s final pass or shot, even if Fabio Borini flashed one inches wide of the post.

It wasn’t until Defoe was introduced that any of Sunderland’s players genuinely looked as if they had the unwavering self-belief that they were going to find the net.

But it’s not just that lack of cohesion which is missing.

Successful teams have a knack of picking up points or scoring goals whether they have been good, bad or indifferent.

For instance, Sunderland’s relegation rivals Norwich managed to come away with a 1-1 draw on Saturday despite being battered by Everton in an opening 45 minutes where they could comfortably have been 5-0 down.

Allardyce hasn’t been able to inject that priceless habit into Sunderland’s ranks yet.

In four of his opening eight games – West Brom, Southampton, Arsenal and Watford – Sunderland could feasibly have come away with a draw. Had they managed that, they would be sitting quite smugly on 16 points from 16 games.

No, heads didn’t go down after Odion Ighalo’s early toe poke gave the Hornets the lead and Sunderland created more than sufficient chances to earn a share of the spoils, but they didn’t take any of them.

That’s the only statistic that matters.

When the opposition goes ahead, this club doesn’t have the mental resilience to roar back and win the game.

Damningly, they haven’t managed to register three points from a losing position since April 2014.

They haven’t done it at the Stadium of Light since Martin O’Neill’s FIRST game at the helm in December 2011.

When the opposition scores at all, Sunderland’s record isn’t great.

Four of Sunderland’s seven top flight wins last season came when their slain foes drew a blank.

All three of them have come in that manner this time around.

Yes, Sunderland look mentally stronger under Allardyce’s stewardship, yet they still aren’t sufficiently resilient psychologically to overcome such a regular obstacle.

Tellingly, Allardyce mused about an “air of panic” when Sunderland fall behind, as he reflected on a defeat which could have damning repercussions after the next three games.

Countering those habits takes time, yet that’s the asset which Allardyce doesn’t have.

The progress under Allardyce so far needs to ascend on an even steeper upward curve if Sunderland are going to get out of this.