Rumours abound that Sunderland players are currently being watched by bigger fish. Everton, armed with the money from the sale of Boy-Wonder, are either pitching around for new stars, or just an easy journalistic story where transfers are concerned. Both of our creative players – Thornton & Arca – have been linked with moves to the blue-half of Merseyside. Whilst neither deal is likely to happen for a number of reasons, it is worrying that our best players, in terms of footballing ability, are the most likely to leave.
Now, I hear the arguments – Arca is in his final year and any money is better than him walking out come May, and Thornton is not getting a regular game anyway, so, again, money for a reserve can only be good business. But I have to disagree. My argument goes thus: we need quality players for the long-haul and getting rid of the one or two we have would consign us to mid-table mediocrity, at best.
Look at the five games played so far. The Crewe game apart, we have struggled against, let’s face it, poor sides. Whilst we did OK at Coventry, we lost 2-0 because of silly mistakes. Following the Crewe game, we faced QPR & Plymouth, who have both just come up. For a team that finished third last season, having early games against sides making the jump up in class is a God-send. But we got a late goal against QPR to avoid a home defeat, and were steam-rollered in the first 45 minutes by Plymouth. Against Wigan – admittedly a team with a bit of money behind them, but relative newcomers to this level themselves – we again had to rely on a late goal to come away with a point.
The reason for the poor start, and this is obviously a personal one, is down to our tactics. I must admit to liking Mick, and he can only work with what he has available, but Sunderland are still a side who graft and grunt more than act with guile. He chooses to play a flat back four, marshalled by an ageing pro who relies more on his reading of the game than pace or tackling ability, protected by a solid, defensive central midfield pairing. This means any creativity has to come from the wide men, and we are therefore reliant on the somewhat inconsistent Oster. Our front men consist of another ageing pro who, whilst still aware of where the goal lies, manages to spend a few minutes in the game and the greater part watching it, and a target-man. Invariably, if the central midfielders fail to break up the opposition attack and our captain backs off the forward, we conceed and end up chasing the game. This means even more pressure on the likes of Oster to produce. When this invariably fails, we end up lumping it forward to our target-man.
Now, I’m not saying we are Arsenal, or Man Utd or Chelsea, but why do we persist with the long-ball? Why, when we have a creative player in Thornton and a quick forward in Elliott, do we play Whitley and Stewart? Again, I can hear the arguments well up, but if Thornton is fit enough to be the super-sub, why not play the lad from the start? With match fitness and a regular starting place, the lad can only improve. Similarly, with Elliott. OK, he has little experience, but neither did Kyle, and the former Man City man has shown he can hit the onion bag. It’s still the target-man tactic that leaves me numb, and makes me wonder if there’s a better way.
The plus points from the opening games are few, but there are some. Liam Lawrence looks a good buy. A much-sought after midfielder who had topped the goalscoring midfield charts last season, Mick did well to bring him to the club. He looks lively, wants the ball, isn’t afraid to have a go and could become our best signing of the summer. Running a close second would be Caldwell. Strong at the back and a goalscoring threat from set pieces, he saved us against QPR and has already improved our side. And then there’s Steve Elliott. The kid will get goals for us, that’s for sure, but we can’t expect him to be happy starting from the bench every week. Having said that, these three indicate the route we have to take – quailty footballers. When signed, they joined a list of…… 2: Arca & Thornton.
If we played a spine of Caldwell & Clark, Thornton & Robinson, and Elliott as our main striker, we’d have two young, athletic, pacy defenders who read the game well and organise the defence. In midfield, we’d have players who aren’t afraid to go forward, but equally Robinson could hold back as Thornton drives us forward. Maybe Healy would be the better player in that role when he returns. And up front we’d have a pacy forward who could cause panic amongst the defence. With Lawrence and a fit-again Piper patrolling the flanks, and Thornton breaking from midfield, the opposition defence wouldn’t know where the next threat would come from. Add to the mix Arca’s influence from a deeper, left-back role and suddenly the lack of quality and flair we currently see is reversed. We wouldn’t need to chase the game, if we directed it more, and we could lose the long-hoof forward. Playing a more productive style of football would surely attract more quality, and aid us in our retention of Julio. But we need to start by regularly playing our better players, such as Thornton & Elliott. But, hey, what do I know? I’m no football manager. Blimey, I can’t even win at Fantasy Football!
All I see currently, though, is a team that struggles with confidence because we don’t dictate the game, wide men that lack consistency and creativity, a reliance on a target-man who is still dangerous only in fits & starts, and our more creative players are attracting the attention of other teams more than our own manager.