SAFC Analysis: Typical Sunderland back to square one after dismal defeat

QPR defend in depth to keep out Sunderland last night. Picture by Kevin Brady
QPR defend in depth to keep out Sunderland last night. Picture by Kevin Brady
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THERE WAS a phrase around these parts which Martin O’Neill detested: “Typical Sunderland”.

It riled him. As O’Neill was trying to alter the mindset on Wearside, he was frustrated by the persistent backwards steps from a club well-versed in disappointment and under-achievement.

Gus Poyet has alluded to similar over the last week or so; persistently stressing that Sunderland were far from alright, despite appearing to turn a corner with the win over Burnley and progress into the FA Cup fifth round.

How right he was to fear the worst.

It’s one step forwards, two steps back... again.

This was the most typical of typical Sunderland performances, against a QPR side who had lost 11 out of 11 on the road and had not even taken the lead away from Loftus Road previously.

Losing home and away against a managerless side, who have been so fragile this season, were devoid of confidence after seven winless games and were without their top scorer, gave plenty of substance to those preaching “I told you so”.

But it was the manner of the display and repercussions of this defeat which will grate until Sunderland return to Premier League action.

This was Boxing Day’s debacle against Hull all over again, if not even worse.

Victory over QPR would have been a major step towards Premier League survival and provided the perfect foundation for Sunday’s FA Cup fifth round clash at Bradford .

But instead, Sunderland are back to square one; two points above the drop zone and with serious question marks once more about their capabilities at the Stadium of Light.

With the visit of West Brom to come next in the top flight, that awful statistic of just two home league wins will continue to dog Sunderland.

On the back of a genuinely positive week, Sunderland should have been firing on all cylinders in the opening exchanges, desperate to prey on QPR’s vulnerability.

Instead, they spent the first half-hour in a parallel universe of appallingness.

There were no lessons learned from the awful sluggish starts against both Liverpool and Fulham here.

The Black Cats were again back to being almost comatose.

Sunderland could barely string two passes together. They hardly even left their own half for much of the first 10 minutes.

For all Gus Poyet can moan and groan about the lack of patience from supporters, his players set the tone and that wasn’t a particularly harmonious note.

Time and again, possession was wasted by Seb Larsson, Liam Bridcutt and, most notably, Jordi Gomez, and it just kept handing the initiative back to QPR, who were rewarded for their own positive start to proceedings.

Unlike Sunderland’s midfield, QPR pressed, particularly the impressive Joey Barton, who needled away with niggly nips at the red and white shirts, yet managed to survive until the final 15 minutes before being booked.

As QPR pressed and pressed, the misplaced passes from Sunderland simply became more and more frequent.

The visitors’ game-plan wasn’t particularly difficult to deduct – press, win the ball and immediately switch to the play to the right, where Matty Phillips and Mauricio Isla could double up on Patrick van Aanholt.

It was a ploy which Swansea had used in the second half on Saturday, where Sunderland were clearly lopsided with Ricky Alvarez on the right, and Gomez caught in the no-man’s land between central midfield and the left wing.

Van Aanholt is more proficient going forwards than defensively anyway, but to leave him facing a two-on-one had predictable results.

Phillips produced a gorgeous cross from the touchline and Leroy Fer got ahead of Liam Bridcutt to head simply into the bottom corner to open the scoring.

Later, the QPR winger then spun to the right-hand by-line and pulled it back for Fer, only for his side-footer to hit the inside of the post and roll out.

But there was no move from Poyet to address the problem on QPR’s right flank.

It was only when Poyet’s hand was largely forced and he introduced Alvarez at the interval, that Sunderland had a more natural shape, with two wide midfielders patrolling in front of the full-backs.

But by then it was too late.

Sunderland could easily have been level before the interval, with Jermain Defoe, by his standards, missing a sitter after Gomez’s left-wing cross arrived on a plate for him.

Connor Wickham, surprisingly straight back into the side after only training with his team-mates again on the morning of the game, then had the chance to equalise when Adam Johnson’s inswinging cross landed on a plate at the back stick.

It took an excellent save from Rob Green to push Wickham’s header onto the bar and then paw it away off the line, but, in truth, the striker should have scored.

For a 10-minute spell, QPR looked vulnerable.

But by half-time, it was that vulnerability on Sunderland’s left flank that was again exposed – Phillips cross’ met with a brilliant right-foot half-volley from Bobby Zamora to double the visitors’ lead and prompt the inevitable chorus of boos.

Alvarez was introduced for Gomez, as Poyet went for broke with an orthodox 4-4-2, and, on another day, Sunderland could easily have got back into proceedings.

Green again produced excellent reflexes to keep out Defoe’s flick to Johnson’s bullet cross, before the England stopper kept out a powerful low drive from Alvarez.

But the urgency came too little, too late.

Blessed by a rare two-goal lead, QPR were able to get men behind the ball, with Barton continuing to thrive and Rio Ferdinand beginning to show glimpses of his previous existence.

And on a pitch which was hardly conducive to free-flowing football, Sunderland were unable to get the lifeline which they pressed for.

They scrapped and battled more, but the misplaced passes persisted.

Considering Poyet builds his philosophy on technical proficiency, then this was hardly the greatest demonstration of that blueprint.

Sunderland need to ensure that their faces don’t get even redder at Bradford City on Sunday.

Last night’s result will inevitably prompt a few quid on Sunderland suffering an FA Cup humbling. But it is the visit of the Baggies in 10 days time that will have Sunderland sweating.

When Sunderland could have had some breathing space with the dregs of the top flight, they once more find themselves in the thick of the sticky stuff and facing crunch top-flight fixtures.

SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Reveillere (Brown 63), Vergini, O’Shea, van Aanholt, Bridcutt, Larsson, Gomez (Alvarez 46), Johnson, Wickham (Fletcher 82), Defoe. Subs not used: Graham, Coates, Agnew, Mannone. Booked: Larsson (41), Alvarez (83)

QPR: Green, Caulker, Ferdinand, Phillips (Wright-Phillips 52), Barton, Fer (Zarate 75), Yun, Isla (Doughty 85), Kranjcar, Henry, Zamora. Subs not used: McCarthy, Traore, Hill, Taarabt. Booked: Zamora (34), Ferdinand (70), Barton (78)

Attendance: 39,077. Referee: Martin Atkinson