SUNDERLAND’S winless start to the season continued against Swansea last weekend, with the Black Cats now drawing five of their opening six Premier League outings.
But after a much-improved performance, is Sunderland’s wait for a victory merely a test of patience or a greater concern?
The Echo’s Chris Young chatted with Sunderland legends and BBC Newcastle pundits Gary Bennett and Marco Gabbiadini about the opening exchanges of the campaign.
Chris Young: Should Sunderland be worried about not getting a win by this stage of the season?
Gary Bennett: I think we’ve got to start turning draws into wins. The longer it goes on the harder it becomes.
There was a vast improvement in Saturday’s game against Swansea.
The tempo, the shape of the team was good and at least we created chances and worked the goalkeeper.
But when you’re in that 18-yard box or six-yard box, you’ve got to be clinical and take them, especially at this level.
CY: Particularly those two headers from Wickham and Fletcher. You don’t get many chances in the Premier League, but you’ve got to take them when they come.
GB: Yeah, I think Fletcher was a little bit unlucky. He did well to deflect the header and it just went the other side of the post.
But you’ve got to say Connor Wickham should have at least hit the target. It was a free header, he just needed to get it on goal.
There was one that went across the six-yard box from Buckley too and maybe if he had got a touch on that, Sunderland would have gone on and won the game.
But as games go on, the strikers will know they need to start producing the goods.
I think Connor Wickham knows that, but I would imagine he’ll get another two games at least to get on the scoresheet.
Then if he’s not doing it, maybe you need to start looking at the likes of your Altidore’s or your Fletcher’s to play that role.
CY: Do you feel a bit sorry for the strikers though because they’ve not had loads of chances this season? Saturday was probably the first time all season when they’ve had some service.
MG: That’s the point I was going to make. There’s two ways of looking at it.
We’re not winning, but we’re not losing or conceding many goals.
That was a big issue for people this time last year and even the end of the season before; they thought the defence was slow, didn’t have enough pace and didn’t trust the two centre-halves.
But we’ve seen Wes Brown have a resurgence and his partnership with O’Shea has been fantastic.
The issue for me is we don’t go from a good defensive unit to an attacking unit very quickly.
We don’t go through the gears easily.
I know it was a cup game and there were changes, but the amount of slow play against Stoke when we have got players in the team who have pace – Rodwell is quick, Buckley was on there – we didn’t utilise them to carry the ball.
Three points for a win makes a massive difference in these tables nowadays.
We might look back on this point against Swansea – who I think are one of the best teams to watch in the Premier League and won’t go many games where they don’t score – as a decent result.
But we need a three-pointer just to move us up into that mid-table safety zones.
CY: Yes, as Marco says, Swansea didn’t really threaten at all and they contained them quite well.
GB: They did, but Gus Poyet will look back on that game and say we should have got the three points.
It’s a home game, we’re not conceding and you might only get two or three chances in the Premier League. You’ve got to take them.
I watched Match of the Day on Saturday and looked at the quality of goals scored out of nothing.
That’s what you need to do.
We’re too nice. You look back at the Stoke game last week and the way they scored their goals – head down, bang!
We’ve got to be clinical. I think we’re too nice in that 18-yard box, it’s got to be a nice header or a nice, placed shot.
Nobody has put their head down and scored with some meaning.
MG: We had a spell like this a couple of seasons ago when we didn’t score outside the box for nearly a year.
We need someone to smash one in from 30 yards.
As Benno says, you see lads doing it week-in, week-out and we’ve got players in the team who can do that.
But we just don’t seem to have that burning desire to score goals.
The longer it goes as well, the tension builds, especially at the Stadium of Light.
CY: I was going to say, is there some pressure on the Stoke game on Saturday because you don’t want to go into the second international break still without a win to your name.
GB: It’s not going to be an easy game. We know what Stoke are all about.
They’re trying a new style of play with Mark Hughes, but we saw in the cup last week, they did their homework.
They’ll know they might be able to trouble us with a bit of pace.
We’ve got to make sure we’re on our guard.
We had the same sort of problems against Swansea, but dealt with it excellently.
You need the likes of Lee Cattermole to be on his game to drive the team forward, close them down and make it difficult.
But also, when you’ve stopped the opposition playing – and we go forward and make chances – we need to get some sort of reward from it.
It’s a waste of time being on top and not actually scoring. That’s what we have to do.
You score a goal and it changes the whole picture.
CY: Was there a better balance to the team on Saturday though with two attacking full-backs and two wingers on their natural flanks?
GB: You look at it and for me Billy Jones reminded me a little bit of John Kay; a whole-hearted, no-nonsense sort of defender who wants to get forward.
There was a good partnership with Will Buckley, he wants to get up and down that right-hand side and that’s what you want.
It was forced upon Gus Poyet because of the injury to Wes Brown.
If Wes Brown was fit, would Vergini play in the centre? Would Jones play at right-back? I don’t think he would.
But if Wes Brown is fit, it will be interesting to see what he does.
CY: Vergini did well at centre-half against Swansea though.
MG: I don’t like Vergini at full-back.
GB: He does a job.
MG: Yes, but when you square him up... It becomes something everyone knows about. When you attack Vergini, he rocks back on his heels.
The lad’s a decent player, he’s decent on the ball and he’s quite quick.
But I think when he’s back-pedalling towards goal with a winger running at him, he struggles.
GB: He does a job, but you can tell he’s not a full-back. He’s a centre-back.
He’s been asked to slot in there and done okay, but he’d rather play centre-back.
MG: Round pegs in round holes sometimes isn’t a bad thing and I think Billy Jones did well.
I was watching Phil Bardsley the other night; someone rampaging forwards and pushing up, a full-spirited sort of player.
Billy Jones is a bit more like that.
But then does that compromise your back four? Do you lose that height from set plays?
Those are questions the manager has to ask himself.
It’s clear that van Aanholt likes to push on on the other side, so then they shuffle across and you’ve got three good defenders there.
CY: But then you’ve got an extra man in the middle of the park offering a bit of protection.
MG: It’s really difficult because you can talk about people, stats and formations.
But actually, it’s what we were saying before, they just need to score a goal; get some desire to put the ball in the back of the net.
The QPR goal was a scruffy goal. It landed right on the lap of the centre-forward and he smashed it in and we’ve lost the game.
We just need something a bit more like that in those key moments.
CY: One of the things that has been apparent though, and again was on Saturday, is how key Cattermole is to this team at the moment.
MG: He’s all-action isn’t he.
If you want those flare players to be in the side, you do need someone working with the back four.
But, for me, I think we’ve got to concentrate on those forward players and getting them to hit the back of the net, hit shots, hit crosses that are more dangerous and creating chances.
There haven’t been loads of chances for the lads.
We’ve got in some positions at times and chosen the wrong options. It’s just a little bit more quality around the 18-yard box.
GB: And that’s a forward speaking about not being a lot of chances!
But at the end of the day, you might only get two chances at Premier League level. Hopefully then they can put them in the back of the net.
Just regarding Lee Cattermole, he’s the driving force of Sunderland.
He drives the team on, he’s the one who pulls people about, he’s the one who makes things tick, he’s the one who sets people off to go and close down.
You take him out of there, and you struggle.
There was some tremendous tackles which he made against Swansea, and that sets everyone else off.
H GARY BENNETT and Marco Gabbiadini were speaking at the conclusion of Sunderland’s ‘Legends’ season card campaign, when a group of supporters got the chance to test out their skills against a team of ex-Black Cats players.
The campaign, which has been nominated for a prestigious industry award, saw the club’s supporters take centre-stage on imagery, adverts and promotional activity, highlighting Sunderland’s belief that the true icons of any football club are the fans themselves.
The supporters taking part in Sunday’s game at the Academy of Light won the chance to play in the match by renewing their seat for the 2014-15 season and faced a Sunderland team including Bennett, Gabbiadini, Martin Scott, Martin Gray, Julio Arca, Darren Holloway, Lee Howey, Neil Wainwright, Darren Williams and Michael Proctor.
Season card numbers reached a five-year high as a result of the campaign and a reduction in price for every seat, with the club now launching its 10-game season cards this month.
The package for the final 10 home games of the season – including the Wear-Tyne derby – are priced at £230 for adults, £60 for under-16s, £140 for under-22s and £175 for over-65s.
A special adult and child Family Zone package is also available for £240 (includes one adult and one under-16 ticket).