Sunderland's FA Cup hopes went up in smoke after a 2-0 defeat to Everton in the quarter-final replay. Everton manager David Moyes had said in the build-up that the pressure had shifted to Sunderland, and his side thrived in the self-proclaimed role of ‘underdogs' to set up a semi-final clash with Liverpool next month.
Simon put it pretty succinctly in the match report last night - what was a Wembley dream fast became a nightmare that we could not wake up from.
So, here goes, like a vulture I'm left to pull the decaying flesh off the bones of what was a pretty lifeless performance.
Martin O'Neill reinstated captain Lee Cattermole to the team following a four-match suspension, replacing Jack Colback who was unavailable due to the birth of his first child. John O'Shea missed out after limping off against Queens Park Rangers on Saturday, so Phil Bardsley returned at right-back after illness. Elsewhere, Seb Larsson came back in following his rest at the weekend - allowing Craig Gardner to return to central midfield to partner Cattermole. Having missed the original tie, Stephane Sessegnon started alongside Nicklas Bendtner in attack.
For Everton, Magaye Gueye was the surprise inclusion as he got the nod on the left-hand-side in place of Royston Drenthe - who was given time off on compassionate grounds. Darron Gibson returned in midfield, and the Tim Cahill - Nikica Jelavic partnership that troubled Sunderland in the original tie was retained.
Making Better Use Of The ‘Spare' Man
Both teams lined up in a similar formation; being credited as 4-4-2 but opting to give the second striker more scope, by playing slightly deeper. Where Everton was able to assert itself better earlier on was by being able to drop Cahill in to midfield areas quicker - providing a temporary 3 vs 2 in midfield and allowing the visitors to retain the ball better by having another passing option available.
In contrast, Sessegnon was denied space in what became a compact midfield once Everton relinquished position - something that has become a feature of Sunderland under O'Neill but looked far from polished in this game. So, as Sessegnon struggled for space and Sunderland struggled for a foothold in the game, he was being encouraged to stray from playing ‘between the lines' by passes into the channel between full-back and centre-back to ranging outcomes. At best, Sunderland forced corner kicks and did so on a number of occasions (winning a total of nine corners to Everton's five) and at worst presented the ball back to an Everton side that had grown in confidence having nullified Sunderland's most creative influence.
There were so many incidents last night; it's hard to pick a starting point. Given that when organising a defence most coaches start off with the set-piece, it's where I'll begin with Sunderland's zonal-marking system. Iain Macintosh, some time ago on twitter, highlighted that in this country we have a tendency to blame the system (rather than the players conducting it) when it invariably gets a roll out. Not here. Even negating the attackers vs static defenders point for a moment, Sunderland failed to deny space to Everton players attacking the six-yard box - which resulted in Simon Mignolet making a number of alert saves before he was finally beaten.
What stemmed from Sunderland's defensive play was that it was desperately missing an organiser due to O'Shea's absence. It was hoped that Turner's experience - and recent encouraging form - could lead him to assume the role but his inability to control defensive situations continually left Everton with knock down/second-ball privileges in Sunderland's half. Allowing a long throw to bounce in your own penalty area is a Sunday League no-no, never mind an FA Cup quarter-final, yet Mignolet needed to react quickly and punch away from danger.
Moyes deserves full credit for opting with Gueye's pace up against Bardsley, and the Frenchman continually put Sunderland's right-back under pressure - with and without the ball. It was from a left-sided attack that Everton took the lead, but no amount of organising can address simple ball-watching, which is what Sotirios Kyrgiakos was caught doing, leaving Jelavic unmarked to guide home.
Everton acclimated to the game far quicker and Sunderland was simply unable to challenge their superiority. The home side's best goal scoring chance was fathomed just one minute from time, but Sunderland could not assert itself defensively or in midfield; underlined by the low quality of chances created. Due to Everton's assured opening, Sunderland seemed to rush crossing opportunities - often forcing situations when a slightly more measure approach was needed - and surprisingly, it often came from Larsson; a player who could usually be trusted when crossing opportunities are presented.
I suspect many may use the ‘the season's over' line now, but the one thing the FA Cup run allowed Sunderland fans to do was to dream. The optimist in me - who took a bit of a battering last night - hopes that the final eight games of the season will allow for the same, providing O'Neill will plenty to build on ahead of next season.