Wise Men Say: Bleakest outlook for Sunderland

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Sunderland’s defeat against Norwich was depressing enough on its own, but in the context of last week’s butchering by Leicester and some of last season’s shambolic collapses, it made for even bleaker viewing.

The problems on Wearside are manifold, with the weekly ignominious loss has become a footballing metaphor for the club as a whole.

Just what on earth is going on at Sunderland AFC?

The buck inevitably stops with the man at the top and Ellis Short’s mismanagement of the club shows no sign of ending. Perhaps the financial situation is not entirely his fault, with Financial Fair Play to consider, but, even aside from that, the good ship Sunderland as captained by him has lurched violently from crisis to crisis for too long now, with that sinking feeling showing no sign of abating.

The managerial appointments made during his reign have veered from the positive and hopeful to the questionable and laughable.

His hire and fire approach has certainly not helped things on the pitch, with a lack of stability making it almost impossible for the club to sort out what is an imbalanced playing squad blighted by a distinct lack of quality.

Short has followed the same pattern when it comes to running things behind the scenes, introducing the director of football role seemingly with the remit of implementing a long-term vision at the club.

His first appointment, Roberto De Fanti, was nothing short of a joke and current incumbent Lee Congerton has a lot to do to prove he is the right man for the job.

A cycle of change in this role, should it begin, has the potential to create yet more instability. With Short’s track record, it’s also a distinct possibility.

Congerton’s initial moves in the transfer market have raised a few eyebrows.

Jermain Defoe, though far from the worst player to pull on the red and white shirt of late, is a signing that made no sense at the time and continues to leave the club with more problems than solutions. He has little or no sell on value, does not fit into Dick Advocaat’s preferred 4-3-3 formation and, with Financial Fair Play to contend with, his big wages are a problem, prohibiting the club from signing players who would be a better fit.

If Congerton’s task is to produce a blueprint for the future of the club, signing the shortest term of short-term players on a relatively lengthy contract is a strange way to go about it. While his goals did help retain Premier League status, the long-term cost could be more damaging.

As for the current head coach, Dick Advocaat appears to be struggling with a bad bout of Sunderlanditis already, just as the likes of Gus Poyet and Martin O’Neill did before him.

He has the experience, but then so did O’Neill and, as we discovered when the Northern Irishman was in charge, that counts for little when things inevitably turn sour on Wearside.

Advocaat must improve tactically, addressing his team’s alarming lack of shape on the pitch, while also make better use of his substitutes’ bench. The apparent lack of motivation throughout the squad is also cause for concern.

While the players must take a long, hard look at themselves, it is painful to witness the drop in standard of performance produced by the likes of Lee Cattermole and Seb Larsson.

You could hang your hat on the pair for commitment and endeavour last season, but in the opening two fixtures, Cattermole has been particularly atrocious.

Sunderland fans have been right to defend him against a media caricature in the past, but he’s now beginning to play like a parody of himself.

Why the sudden and dramatic regression?

Is it down to Advocaat’s managerial style?

Cattermole and Larsson both played the best football of their Sunderland careers under Poyet and, before him, Martin O’Neill.

Managers who take a sip from the poisoned chalice that is the Sunderland managerial hot seat are often given the benefit of the doubt, with the repeated suggestion that it is the same set of players who continue to fail, but, given that this is a relatively fresh squad, when does this stop being an excuse?

That said, there is some continuity from previous failed reigns and perhaps they are a bad influence on incoming signings. It is hard to know exactly what is wrong, but the Stadium of Light dressing room does not seem to be a happy place to be.

There are obvious financial restrictions with regard to transfer deals, evident in the lack of quality being added to the squad.

If a rot had set in at the club, then, with each bit of dead wood removed, a decaying carcass of a player has replaced it.

Just look at the new look back four; it’s hard to imagine any of the Congerton new boys – Sebastian Coates, Younes Kaboul, Patrick van Aanholt or Billy Jones – getting a look-in at any other Premier League club.

Ultimately, what happens on the pitch dictates the mood of the club and, most importantly, the supporters and when the players are not good enough, or worse look disinterested and heartless, serious questions start being asked.

With Sunderland fans chanting “are you watching Ellis Short?” it seems the alarm is spreading farther and wider than ever before. A crucial two weeks lie ahead in the transfer market, but it is the coming decades that really matter as Sunderland search for their soul and place in the world of modern football.

* The Wise Men Say podcast is available every Monday, with SAFC debate from a variety of guests and post-match reaction. You can stream it direct from wisemensay.co.uk or subscribe to it on iTunes.