Richard Mennear’s analysis: Too early to write-off Sunderland but relegation alarm bells ringing

Sunderland striker Jermain Defoe despairs after seeing his best effort blocked by Ryan Shawcross at Stoke. Picture by Frank Reid
Sunderland striker Jermain Defoe despairs after seeing his best effort blocked by Ryan Shawcross at Stoke. Picture by Frank Reid
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You know you’re in trouble when the phrase ‘must-win’ gets trotted out just three months into the new campaign.

And make no bones about it, Sunderland are in deep trouble this season.

Alarm bells, if they weren’t already, should be ringing loud and clear after the defeat to Stoke City.

Both sides went into Saturday’s game at the bet365 Stadium without a win.

By the end of it, Mark Hughes’ side had their confidence back and showed clear signs that they will be fine this season.

Sunderland, though, are in a real mess.

And there are few shoots of optimism, either, that the situation will turn around anytime soon.

The players look short on confidence, lack creativity, are poor in possession, lack defensive nous and the team relies too heavily on Jermain Defoe for goals,

When he doesn’t score, Sunderland have little other threat.

A lack of concentration continues to plague them too, with needless errors again costing them at Stoke.

The defence was overworked because of the non-existent central midfield, which was overran and struggled to contain Stoke’s attacking threat.

Problems all over the park for David Moyes.

His main problem, though, is the amount of players in the treatment room. Nine first-team players, six of whom would walk into the team that started on Saturday; Lamine Kone, Jason Denayer, Lee Cattermole, Jan Kirchhoff, Fabio Borini and Adnan Januzaj.

Vito Mannone and Seb Larsson are out too, while Patrick van Aanholt is the latest to join the list, the defender will be assessed after he limped off in the first half with an adductor injury.

Any team missing half-a-dozen starters would struggle.

And patched-up Sunderland don’t have the depth to cope with that loss at the moment.

You just had to take one look at the two benches to see the difference.

Mark Hughes had Mame Diouf, Charlie Adam, Jonathan Walters, Peter Crouch and Bojan to call upon, while Moyes had 34-year-old Steven Pienaar, Victor Anichebe and youngsters Lynden Gooch and Joel Asoro available to help change the game.

Sunderland’s failure to properly boost their attacking options in the summer continues to haunt them.

Not forking out to sign Yann M’Vila, tried and tested at this level, is also costing them.

It could be too late when – or if – the Frenchman arrives in January.

With Kirchhoff and Cattermole injured for the bulk of the campaign so far, M’Vila would have been a huge asset in the centre of midfield.

But Sunderland refused to be held to ransom by Russian club Rubin Kazan over paying over the odds for a player out of contract in January.

The midfield against Stoke was lightweight and ineffective, with Jack Rodwell, Didier Ndong and Paddy McNair all poor.

Ndong was partly at fault for the first goal.

His first pass was intercepted by referee Mike Jones, though the ball came back to him, but he gifted away possession again to Xherdan Shaqiri.

The Swiss international played a slick through-ball to Marko Arnautovic, who had slipped his marker and he provided a cross to the edge of the six-yard box, which Joe Allen nodded in unchallenged.

It was sloppy all round from Sunderland, Stoke taking the lead after just eight minutes.

Defoe had his first sight on goal 17 minutes in. McNair set Wahbi Khazri free down the right-hand flank with a superb pass and he played in Defoe, but his effort was blocked superbly by Potters skipper Ryan Shawcross.

Stoke should have doubled their when John O’Shea needlessly gave the ball away and the hosts broke with pace, but Arnautovic could only get the end of his boot to Wilfried Bony’s cross.

A let-off.

But Allen soon doubled Stoke’s lead, in added-on time.

A Stoke corner was only cleared by O’Shea’s header to the edge of the penalty area, Allen with the low volley past Billy Jones and Jordan Pickford – who was being watched by England assistant boss Sammy Lee.

Angry and fed-up Sunderland fans let the team and manager Moyes have both barrels as they made their way off for half-time.

Sunderland barely got going in the second half on the pitch. Off it, the fans were superb, backing their team to the hilt.

Stoke continued to push forward in numbers and they had chances to extend their lead.

Pickford had to be alert to deny Bony’s effort, with Papy Djilobodji denying Allen a hat-trick with an important block from the follow-up.

Sunderland were losing possession too easily; off came McNair and on came Pienaar.

Defoe saw another effort blocked by Shawcross, Duncan Watmore blasted over, while Khazri saw a free-kick comfortably saved by Lee Grant.

Sunderland, lacking in confidence, were also lacking ideas, while Adam hit the crossbar for Stoke and Pickford was again called upon to save from Shaqiri’s late effort from distance.

In the end, it was all too comfortable for Stoke.

Aston Villa were relegated last season with just 17 points.

And Sunderland have it all to do this season to avoid a similar fate.

Time, though, is on their side. There are still 30 Premier League games to be played.

Recent history has shown you would be foolish to write off Sunderland so early into the campaign, with the club masters at timing their run to safety to perfection.

But they can’t keep relying on pulling off great escapes.

The way this season is shaping up, they would need one of the greatest escapes to remain a top-flight side.

Getting the injured players back fit will help massively, relieving the pressure from the shoulders of the younger, inexperienced players.

That pressure will only mount with every game that passes.

It is hard to see where the first win is coming from, but Sunderland need to prove they are up to the challenge.

They owe it to their fans.