The stats that damn Sunderland's midfield duo - and why Grayson's signings HAVE been impressive

Didier Ndong
Didier Ndong
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I tend not to attach great substance to statistics.

They can be misleading, something repeatedly proved by scores of politicians. They’re often dull and remind me of school; even if I only did attend occasionally.

Lee Cattermole

Lee Cattermole

Too many aberrations you see. For example, Sunderland’s best possession statistic this season was the 59 percent they managed at Barnsley. This suggests a competent display when the reality was the worst performance so far and a 3-0 scudding.

Their lowest possession was 29 percent at Norwich; but they won.

However, statisticians will tell you to look at patterns rather than individuals instances – and I have to concede to them here.

Sunderland have only had superior possession in four of their 13 games (all four were defeats). This indicates the most striking of their many failures on the pitch: keeping the ruddy ball.

Two goals up at half-time against a fairly shoddy Brentford on Saturday, the modus operandi should have been to just retain the ball; pass it to death and bore everyone in Griffin Park to slumber.

In current circumstances, who gave an obscene noun about entertainment? It’s nice, but not a priority.

Just keep it. This brings us to a recurring theme that we alluded to only last week: the continuing selection of both Lee Cattermole and Didier Ndong.

It’s often complained that Simon Grayson seems unsure of his best 11. Well he seems pretty sure about two of them. They’ve only missed one game apiece this season.

It’s accepted that both offer zero in attack. They have scored three times in a combined 250 Sunderland appearances and rarely create anything. They’re there in a negative capacity: to protect the defence.

Except that they often do precisely the opposite, with no clean sheets this season and much of this down to Cattermole and Ndong squandering possession with a frequency that would be amusing if they played for another club.

Last week we mentioned QPR scoring from a corner that N’Dong conceded when, instead of executing a simple upfield header, the ball somehow pinged off his left ear; presumably making the sort of noise that you might hear in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

At Brentford, the home side’s first goal came from Cattermole’s lumbering first touch. Their second was from a free-kick conceded by Ndong.

True, Brentford’s third was a dumb fluke. But if you continually present the ball to the other team, they will eventually score a goal of some description.

Aside of their continued treating of the ball like an unpinned grenade, the selection of both players shows a lack of the boldness currently required. This would be true even if they were playing well.

An away win was far from impossible at Griffin Park, even when it went back to 3-3. But Toot and Flute played the full match; even though both had also been booked.

Meanwhile, Sunderland’s three biggest goal threats, Grabban, Watmore and McGeady, were all given the hook. The idea was to hold on to the draw – again, no positivity – and they almost dropped that in the end.

In fairness, Cattermole and Ndong aren’t the only players to make mistakes and they make some excellent challenges at times. The problems at SAFC go far beyond any couple of players.

More important is that significant progress seems highly unlikely until the club is sold. Even then, only a fool would assume that matters couldn’t become even worse under a new regime.

But Simon Grayson has no control over that. All he can do is maximise the squad he has. For as long as he’s the manager.

The league position is partly (though obviously not entirely) attributable to repeated managerial errors. Yet this Saturday against Bristol City I expect the same; the ball given away constantly in the centre of midfield and no home win.

For years Sunderland have virtually always play two defensive midfielders. With the exception of the unfortunate Jan Kirchhoff, they rarely inspired.

The team won’t transmute into Barcelona in the next three days. But it’s demanding little that they pass the ball to someone wearing the same colours. I think.

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With one win in 13, Rumpole himself would be pushed to mount a defence of Simon Grayson at Sunderland.

Tactics, selection, substitutions and comments. Where has he gone right?

Well let’s be even-handed. He has actually recruited pretty well on miniscule money, while the departures had nothing to do with him.

Be as abusive as you like on social media; it’s true.

Loanee Lewis Grabban has scored five from eight starts. Aiden McGeady is clearly a bargain. Callum McManaman and Jonny Williams should shine too: if fit.

Tyias Browning looks a reasonable Championship defender (clanger against Forest notwithstanding), as does Marc Wilson.

I don’t pretend it’s all been good. In the other column, Brendan Galloway looks completely out of his depth. James Vaughan shows a commendable attitude, but we can see why he only cost £500,000.

The two goalkeepers? So far so bad for Ruiter and Steele. But with a budget of £500,000 for both and smaller combined salaries than Vito Mannone (presumably, otherwise it makes no sense); what should we have expected? Bear in mind that Brentford paid £1.1m for the keeper I watched on Saturday.

Overall though, it’s quite impressive on a total spend of next to nowt. Well done Simon.

It’s just a pity about the tactics, selection, substitutions...