AHEAD of Tuesday night’s game against Stoke City, Sunderland had put in a solid if unspectacular start to the season.
There were a few glimpses of promise in the draw at Burnley the weekend before, but, with no league wins under our belt, we at least had the hope of a rerun of last season’s League Cup adventure to look forward to.
With those dreams dashed, our stuttering start to the season now appears to have completely stalled.
Ironically enough, it was as good a performance as I’ve seen from Gus Poyet’s men thus far this term, despite the much-changed starting line-up. In fact, but for two spells in each half, Sunderland were completely dominant and, for once, creating some clear-cut chances in the box.
This was a vast improvement on the low tempo, ponderous passing that took the thrust out of many an attack at Turf Moor.
Arguably, had it not been for some dubious refereeing, Sunderland would have won this game and progressed to the fourth round of the League Cup.
That said, there were still some worrying performances from individuals and the team as a whole, particularly after Stoke’s contentious second goal.
Firstly, while it was fantastic to see Jozy Altidore find the net, it was also extremely frustrating to see it do little or nothing for his confidence.
In fact, he started the game well enough – an improvement on his performance at Burnley anyway, though it would’ve been impossible to sink lower – then scored an impressive goal before fading, crumbling and ultimately reverting to type.
If a goal can’t save his fragile confidence, what will?
Time and excuses are starting to run out for the big American; scoring did little to mask another abject performance.
It would be unfair to level the blame for this defeat at his door and I have no desire to do so, but his lack of understanding and ability to learn from his mistakes are a source of extreme frustration and concern.
He continues to battle defenders by grappling in a manner more suited to the NFL than the Premier League, and shows no sign of cutting it out.
Surely a basic like this should come naturally?
Alongside Altidore in the disappointing stakes was Costel Pantilimon, whose distribution makes the often suspect Vito Mannone look like Manuel Neuer.
He also looked at least in part to blame for both goals.
In his defence, Mannone had a similarly stinking game against MK Dons last season and then recovered to become one of our players of the season. Pantilimon’s time may yet come.
Another player looking to stake a claim for a regular starting position was Jordi Gomez, but he proved to be less playmaker and more bystander; he barely made a mark on the game and really struggled to impose himself.
If he is to dislodge the hardworking Sebastian Larsson then he’ll need to show better than he has done so far in a red and white shirt.
Despite scoring an impressive goal against Birmingham in the previous round, he was similarly unimpressive for the rest of the game.
On the plus side, in the second half, with Billy Jones at right-back and Patrick van Aanholt at left-back, Sunderland were a more cohesive attacking force.
Santiago Vergini was a revelation on the ball when moved to centre-back, playing two wonderful through balls to bisect the Stoke defence, while Jack Rodwell’s fitness and prominence continues to grow.
However, perhaps the most encouraging aspect to the game was Will Buckley’s pace. He’s likely to start against Swansea and his direct running could well provide a huge shift in dynamic to the side.
Given the lack of speed and tempo shown thus far this season, his role could prove to be far more prominent than that of the initially anticipated “impact sub” many earmarked for him, myself included.
Unfortunately, the positives were not enough to win us the game and that has been the case too often this season.
Swansea await tomorrow and their impressive form suggests they’ll be no pushovers. Intensity, tempo and pace are required to give us any chance of lifting the gloom on a start to the season that is verging on the certifiably bad.
* The Wise Men Say podcast is available from every Monday, with SAFC debate from a variety of guests and post-match reaction from Gus Poyet. You can stream it direct from wisemensay.co.uk or subscribe to it on iTunes.
* Don’t miss tomorrow’s online Football Echo – for the best coverage of Sunderland v Swansea, plus much more. It’s available on this website from 7pm tomorrow