Sunderland: Are They Already Condemned To The Drop?
When Sunderland's players exited the Stadium of Light pitch on Saturday, they gave the impression of men enjoying their last taste of the good life whilst they can.
Only two games into the season, the Black Cats have seemingly run out of lives, with a 1-3 home defeat to recently promoted Norwich City already appearing a decisive signal of their impending doom.
Ever since returning to the top flight in 2007, the club has been perilously clinging on to their Premier League status by a thread, finishing 13th place or lower in every campaign but one. They have failed to progress and have arguably receded since Steve Bruce was sacked. At this point, not even their main sponsors consider them likely to avoid relegation this time around.
Quick fixes like Paolo Di Canio and Gus Poyet in the manager's seat have provided nothing but an end of season boost to morale, with Dick Advocaat the latest example. Don't be surprised to see the Dutchman forced out as boss by January, before the board give their traditional roll of the die and keep their fingers crossed it comes up six again. Eventually though, as Wigan found out a couple of campaigns earlier, their luck will run out, and this season looks like it could bear witness to that depressing sight for the Mackem Army.
Two defeats out of two is not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination. Current champions Chelsea only have one point and nobody is pegging them for the drop. However, it is the manner of those losses and the quality of their opponents that have caused greater concern. Leiceister City came on the opening day of the season, another team considered a favorite for relegation following the loss of Nigel Pearson over the summer. Yet, with Claudio Ranieri pulling the strings, Sunderland tripped up on multiple occasions in a 2-4 loss. Conceding four against a side that is considered your competition was a dreadful way to begin the campaign, and it got no better on home soil.
Norwich City are a recently promoted side, and as such will be battling against the trap door also. Yet, the ease in which they swept aside Sunderland, whose defensive frailties from last year reared their ugly head once more, raised major concerns over whether the Wearside occupants are finally set to end their years in the Premier League. Across the back four they looked clueless, especially for the third goal where they appeared not the realize Nathan Redmond was in their penalty area until he slid the ball past the hapless Costel Pantilimon. Frankly, the 1-3 scoreline flattered the Black Cats, with Norwich getting 18 shots away to Sunderland's six, who were left licking their wounds for a second straight week.
These were the performances against opposition considered their close rivals for the coming season. If Sunderland are going to avoid the drop it is teams like Leicester and Norwich that will have to go in their place, and based on these matches that will be a tough ask, as they appeared distinctly average throughout both contests. Their only bright spark was the debut of Duncan Watmore, and it is pretty embarrasing that with all the supposed talent in the squad, they are all being shown up by a 21-year-old making his first ever Premier League appearance. If the team play like this against much tougher opposition, starting with the free-flowing Swansea City this weekend, I struggle to think how many goals they'll concede.
The post-match interview following this drubbing from Advocaat will have unlikely alleviated any fears from the home faithful and added fuel to the condemnations of the doubters. "It was even worse than last week," Advocaat said. "We have to discuss with the players how we go on. We have to find the solution, because otherwise we have no chance."
He continued "Even this squad must be good enough to get a better result against Norwich, with five new players, but there is something wrong, that's quite simple.It was the same in pre-season and you hoped it would change but it is not changing.That isn't the attitude of a manager ready to bounce back and recover from a disappointing start. Those are the words of someone who realizes the difficulty of his current situation, and a candid take on how hard they'll have to work to maintain their spot among the elite.
Sunderland have also been hit by a lack of investment, which was a significant factor in bringing Advocaat back to the manager role following his original decision to retire. They have so far only recruited four players, with Jeremain Lens the sole one costing in excess of £3 million. This is a far cry from the £50 million war chest that was promised at the beginning of the summer, meaning the club will likely have to rely on those already in their ranks to step up and rise to the challenge. It might actually prove a blessing in disguise for Sunderland, whose recent splurges in the transfer market have failed to improve their standing, with Jermain Defoe arguably the only acquisition to have benefited the squad in the past three seasons.
But it has to be worth the risk. The Black Cats are incredibly frail in defence, a situation that hasn't improved since last season in spite of the experience of John O'Shea, Wes Brown and Younes Kaboul in their ranks. They have already conceded seven goals in two matches, and is compounded even harder by their inadequacies at the attacking end of the pitch. Last year they provided the second-fewest goals, with their top scorers producing five apiece. One of those, Conor Wickham, left this summer for Crystal Palace, meaning they will be heavily reliant on Stephen Fletcher regaining the form of two seasons ago, and Defoe improving on his half-season back in the Premier League. And if either get injured, it would be for them to surpass a collective 30 goals. If this wasn't bad enough, creative midfielder Adam Johnson's future is murky amid his trial for allegedly having sex with a minor.
Fundamentally, based on the performances of their team over the past two years and their recent results, few people will be saying outright that Sunderland have zero chance of descending the Championship. They have shown no heart, no rigidity, and virtually no investment.
I feel for the fans this year, as they will likely have to endure many difficult days across the next nine months, and any celebrations will be contained to whether they avoid the drop by the skin of their teeth once more.