PACE. It’s always been a vital asset in football, particularly so in the modern game.
In the late 1990s, I remember Michael Gray being employed as a man-marker by Peter Reid to combat the rapidity of a young Kieron Dyer, then plying his trade at Ipswich Town.
Gray’s own pace was an asset that day at the Stadium of Light and it’s something we sorely lack now.
Sunderland are faced with myriad issues this season, a key one being a lack of quick players in the squad.
Ironically, the only player with any pace among the current bunch is, like Gray, a left back. If it weren’t for Patrick van Aanholt, this side would be lacking in anything capable of covering ground at speed.
Maybe that’s unfair, Will Buckley is also quick, but he’s also been injured and/or completely useless this season, so it’s easy to forget him. At least he can console himself with not being a part of the latest Sunderland horror show.
That said, Buckley is far from the only poor player in a squad riddled with bad eggs. Lack of pace is a huge issue and one that was quite obvious before the season kicked off, but so is a collectively rotten attitude and general lack of quality and fight.
John O’Shea, generally decent this season, had a shocker against Crystal Palace in our most recent ignominious home defeat. He was shown up to be leaden footed by the powerful, fast-moving Palace attack comprising of Jason Puncheon, Wilfried Zaha and, most impressively, hat-trick scorer Yannick Bolasie.
Not only was O’Shea and his equally dreadful partner Santiago Vergini caught out by the lightning speed of the Palace forwards, they were also bullied by the uncompromising Glenn Murray.
To say the defending was embarrassing would be an understatement.
What Sunderland would do for a modicum of the pace Palace had at their disposal!
In the first half, Connor Wickham did his best to run with the ball and bully defenders in the process, while Adam Johnson’s arrival from the bench came too late. Both can carry the ball, but not with the sort of speed the Palace attack were able to.
The rest of Sunderland’s front three was comprised of a peripheral Jermain Defoe and an utterly pointless Steven Fletcher. Defoe, when he’s in the game, can be quick in short bursts, while Fletcher appears to be caught on his heels as often as O’Shea and Vergini are defensively.
On paper, Fletcher, Wickham and Defoe look as good as, if not better options than, the aforementioned Palace quartet.
In reality, the blend is all wrong. Sometimes, a little less star quality and a better team ethic go a long way, something this same set of players showed in the recent derby win and yet everything these Sunderland players did right last week in the derby, they failed to this time around.
We’ve said that far too often this season and this latest in a string of humiliating defeats makes for a worrying trend at the wrong end of the season.
Those derby wins and the spirit shown in them look increasingly like anomalies.
O’Shea, pumped up at the end of last week’s victory, cupped his hand to the South Stand before raising his fist in salute.
Earlier in the season, Fletcher scored a brace against Stoke before challenging the same stand with a similar cupped ear pose.
Perhaps both should take a look at the rest of the season and why atmospheres have been less than kind for the most part.
Put in a performance and we’ll respond in kind. They’re going to need to if they’re to dig themselves out of this mess.
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