David Preece: Sunderland toiling in first-half red zone

Patrick van Aanholt battles with Sergio Aguero
Patrick van Aanholt battles with Sergio Aguero
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There’s a saying in football that goes: “You’re never more vulnerable defensively than when you have just scored a goal”.

And goalkeepers know this to be true more than most.

The kind of approach Advocaat adopted when he first arrived, with some success, funnily enough.

If you wanted to, you could customize that cliche to make it more applicable to the Stadium of Light and say: “Sunderland are never more vulnerable than when the referee whistles to signal the start of the game”.

A tad unfair perhaps but nevertheless true.

There’s no denying they’ve been starting as badly the 1983 A reg Nissan Micra I drove when I was 18 and killing themselves before the game has even reached half-time.

I could go as far as to say the club should think about reserving a section of the stadium for fans who just pay to watch the first 45 minutes of the game for half price and then decide if they want to pay the extra to stay, depending on the score at half-time.

Of course I could say that and I’d be joking, but it does make you think.

However you try though, there’s no dressing up the fact that sluggish starts have contributed greatly to the position the team find themselves in now. And it is a fact, rather than an accusation, as even Dick Advocaat has alluded to it himself, but how to solve it is not quite as easy.

Confidence, understandably, must be fragile, and teams facing Sunderland must surely identify this early game vulnerability as a weakness and know if they put Sunderland under early pressure with a direct, high tempo pressing game, the chances are they’ll be handed the game on a plate.

I actually began writing all of this on Tuesday afternoon and quality of the opposition apart, it happened again against Manchester City that night. It’s no disgrace to lose to the Premier League leaders but the manner in which it was done was part of an all-too familiar pattern.

There are periods in games when you are most likely to concede and we call these “red zones”.

Like I said before, one red zone is immediately after you have scored a goal so to combat this, extra effort is put into winning the ball back as soon as possible after the restart.

The first and last five minutes of each half are also crucial red zones when lapses in concentration are more likely to occur due to not being fully concentrated due to bad preparation and fatigue.

I’ve experienced both ends of the scale with sides going through spells of losing goals early in the game and late on too, and would probably say losing early goals is the easier to avoid because there are precautions you can take to make cut out any slackness.

Firstly, more rigorous warm-ups can be devised so not only are your players more physically prepared but also mentally up to speed by testing them with more complicated passing drills and small-sided possession games.

Secondly, you can simplify and adjust your patterns of play to suit certain periods in the game, which can be effective.

Defensively you can tell your defenders to reduce their risk taking by playing less football in their own half and being more direct with their passing.

No defender has ever won games doing Cruyff turns on the edge of his own box ... but I know a few who have lost them.

It’s a pragmatic, simplistic approach but in times such as these, you’re a defender first and a footballer second.

“No-nonsense” defending seems to be frowned upon but I’d rather call it “Low risk” defending and worry about creating chances and playing expansive football later.

The kind of approach Advocaat adopted when he first arrived, with some success, funnily enough.

In fact, watching those last few games of the previous season, I actually thought to myself that the full-backs were too conservative, but this year they’ve gone AWOL.

On the mental side of it, when teams experience a run of games where they are conceding goals in the same particular spell, it can almost become a kind of self-fulfilling prephecy because anxiety is heightened by the awareness of being in one of those red zones, making them more prone to making errors. Catch 22.

The longer this run of chasing games from such an early stage of the game continues, the more of a knock-on effect it will have on the squad physically, as the energy exerted trying to claw back deficits given away cheaply will begin to show and gradually reduce their freshness and lessen their chances of success further still.

Watching the post match interviews of the Manchester City game, I can see why Dick would try to glean as much positivity from the second half performance as he could but winning the second half 1-0 after losing by four in the first is a little like embalming a dead body.

The damage is done, the game has gone, but saying you at least you won the second half is just putting a bit of post-match lipstick and blusher on the dead corpse of the game.

It doesn’t get any easier either, as they travel to Old Trafford this weekend, so if they want to keep the heart of their season beating, Sunderland need to start preparing themselves better for battle and eating their greens, or they’ll be in danger of being swallowed up by The Reds.