Sunderland's trip to Blackburn Rovers on Tuesday evening was lost amid the shroud of FA Cup fever that currently hangs in the air around Wearside, and it showed on the pitch. The Black Cats were abysmal, deservedly going down 0-2 to Steve Kean's men. The result put paid to any slim hopes Sunderland had of achieving a European spot via their final league positioning - next week's cup replay with Everton is now truly season-defining.
Martin O'Neill's 4-4-2 formation saw two changes from the weekend's draw on Merseyside. David Vaughan partnered Craig Gardner in midfield, replacing Jack Colback - Colback can have reason to feel hard done to, having played well on Saturday. The other change saw John O'Shea miss out with a slight knock; in his place came debutant loanee Sotirios Kyrgiakos.
The home side lined up in a 4-5-1. Yakubu led the line, supplemented by the advancing Junior Hoilett behind him. Mauro Formica and Marcus Olsson lined up on the right and left of midfield respectively, with Morten Gamst Pedersen and Steven N'Zonzi in the centre. At the back, Jason Lowe and Marcus' brother, Martin Olsson, were the full-backs entrusted with stopping balls getting into the centre, where Scott Dann and Grant Hanley protected goalkeeper Paul Robinson.
This was an insipid game. The first half just saw four attempts on goal - all from the home side - and the second forty-five minutes was little better. Over time, Rovers' willingness to push for a result and more careful distribution of the ball won out but, in truth, Sunderland offered little for them to overcome.
A particular problem was the Black Cats' right side. Seb Larsson had a torrid time on the ball. The Swede looked leggy and tired throughout, and managed just a 73% pass success rate. Worse still, of his 15 attempted crosses, only one found a fellow red and white shirt.
Larsson's poor performance was exploited by the Olsson brothers. Full-back Martin occupied a highly advanced role, getting into the Sunderland half whenever possible. At first, this pinned Larsson back, limiting the away side's attacking options. Later, as the Sunderland man became more tired, it left right-back Phil Bardsley with the unenviable task of dealing with two onrushing men. One case where Bardsley found himself surrounded by two men (though not, in this instance, both of them Olssons) was prior to the throw-in that ultimately led to Blackburn's opening goal. In all, Blackburn focused 37% - a majority - of their attacks down the left side of the field.
With regards to Bardsley, a look at the statistics would suggest the stand-in captain had a fine game. 80% of his clearances were effective and he contributed four important interceptions. That said, he is still prone to lapses in concentration. One notable example was when he played everyone onside in the opening half, leaving Yakubu with a run on goal. Bardsley did redeem himself, clearing the ball off the line, and it is this heart which often sees him through. But it remains that he wasn't much better than the rest last night, and going forward he offered little.
The same can be said of his fellow full-back, Wayne Bridge. Though solid defensively last night, the English loanee was sparing in his support of James McClean. This changed towards the end when he provided a defence-splitting pass to the Irishman, but aside from that you could count on one hand the number of times he got ahead of his teammate.
With McClean the victim of having two men around him almost every time he got the ball (for the fifth consecutive game, no less), and Sunderland focusing a colossal 46% of their attacks down the left, it is a problem that must be rectified. This will come via either Bridge having more confidence in his ability to get forward, or with the return of the more attack-minded Kieran Richardson.
Sunderland's passing was as bad as it has been since Martin O'Neill arrived on Wearside. Of the eleven starters, only two managed pass success rates of over 80% - David Vaughan and Nicklas Bendtner.
Vaughan was economical on the ball, but posed little threat to Rovers. N'Zonzi and Pedersen effectively shut off the Welshman's routes to Campbell and Bendtner, usually leaving him to go sideways or backwards. There is nothing inherently wrong with this on its own, but the poor performance of Craig Gardner meant Sunderland were short on creativity in the middle. Furthermore, with Vaughan occupying a deeper role, his inability to move the ball forward much meant the away side had trouble building meaningful attacks through the middle - though this was more down to the team's inadequacies than Vaughan specifically.
As for Bendtner, he was probably Sunderland's best performer - which isn't saying much. He held the ball up quite well throughout, especially compared to Fraizer Campbell, who was truly awful all night. Bendtner won five aerial challenges, despite this blatantly not being his style.
Sunderland's distribution from defence was probably the most galling thing about last night's performance. Though John O'Shea's passing is often lamented, what goes unnoticed is that when he seeks to make simple completions over short distances, it slowly but surely moves the ball out of defence.
There was little of this last night. The last possible definition of Sotirios Kyrgiakos is surely 'ball-playing defender'; the lofty Greek is there to clear the ball, and that's about it. With Michael Turner busy with the constant pressure put on him by Yakubu - who worked tirelessly for the home side - and Simon Mignolet's kicking leaving a lot to be desired, it all added up to much giving away of the ball. In fairness to Turner, he did actually find his man 77% of the time, but ineffectual performances ahead of him meant it came to little.
A bad day at the office for O'Neill's men, and one that, with hindsight, seems fairly predictable. The cup tie on Saturday was a real blood and thunder one, something which had undoubtedly taken a lot out of the team. Added to that, the continued absence of key players (Sessegnon, Cattermole, O'Shea, Richardson, even Wes Brown could fall into this category) meant Sunderland were always likely to struggle sooner or later. The side managed scarcely a shot on goal this time around, yet were it not for some world-class defending from Martin Olsson, and a shocking miss from Ji Dong-Won, the visitors would have levelled things up.
Nicklas Bendtner and James McClean could come out with some credit, but the rest really did struggle to get going. Seb Larsson looks like he could do with a rest; Craig Gardner is yet to convince people of his effectiveness in a midfield two; Fraizer Campbell's returning high has petered out; Simon Mignolet's distribution is a contributory factor to the side's inability to hold onto the ball when they most need to.
That said, one feels Sunderland shouldn't dwell too much on this result. For all their troubles this season, Blackburn are starting to pull away from the relegation zone. The Black Cats must now hope to bounce back against QPR on Saturday.