Home Discomforts Are Not Unique To Sunderland, But What Are The Causes?

Ian Horrocks

The draw with Crystal Palace on Saturday was typical of Sunderland at the Stadium of Light this season. Why are we and other Premier League sides finding it easier to pick points up on the road?

At the start of the season, the fixture list made for terrifying reading, with many of the country's top sides visiting the Stadium of Light in the first few months. Of course, you have to play everybody twice, but after losing to Fulham at home, we began to wonder where the points would come from. Thankfully, there was a derby win and our annual defeat of Manchester City to lift spirits, with the prospect of an easier run of home fixtures in the second half of the season.

Those easier fixtures have proved to be anything but, as we've struggled to disappointing draws with Norwich and Palace, while losing to Villa. It's not just Sunderland who are struggling at home though and there are some signs of a general lack of home comforts for a few top flight sides. Is it the sign of a general malaise dawning on the Premier League?

Aside from us, Aston Villa's win on Saturday against Chelsea brought their home record level with their away one. Prior to that, they formed a quarter of the league's sides with away records that better their points return from home games. The other sides in the group are Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United and our very own Sunderland.

These sides also make up half of the division's top ten in terms of average attendance. They are all well supported, traditionally big clubs, which makes it all the more surprising that their home grounds have become the very antithesis of a fortress, for their relative expectations and current league positions. There are seemingly two key reasons for this mini trend of sides garnering more points away than they are managing to accumulate on home soil.

While in charge of Spurs, Andre Villas Boas criticised the White Hart Lane crowd after a game against Hull City, claiming, "There was much anxiety present in the fans which transmitted to the players, so this victory is down to the players. We did it with no help today." An interesting remark, which could at least in part explain the home travails of all five clubs.

At the Stadium of Light, we've only beaten Stoke City, of those sides around us in the table, but have also won a local derby against Newcastle as well as defeating high flying Manchester City. The crowd were right behind the team on both of those occasions and perhaps that was of some assistance. That's not to say the crowd have been an active hindrance at other times, but perhaps the players begin to feel the pressure if an early goal doesn't come our way. In fairness, that says as much about their mentality as it does our support.

Manchester United are a bit of an anomaly in this sense, given their crowd has been generally vocal in its backing of David Moyes, where he has received withering criticism elsewhere. He may be feeling the pressure at Old Trafford for other reasons, but for his players there should be no excuse, as the vast majority of that squad were title winners less than twelve months ago. Ironically, it was Sir Alex Ferguson who was critical of the Manchester United support, but under his stewardship they were formidable at home. For a club that size, the fans expect to win, rather than roaring them onto victory.

The atmosphere at St James' Park meanwhile is probably affected as much by disdain with the ownership as anything else, while Villa Park seems to respond to the negative football, which is better suited to playing away. The aforementioned Spurs have different expectations to deal with, a tumultuous season with changing managers and selling their best player in the summer, only to replace him with a veritable mix up of assorted replacement to fill the squad. At all clubs nowadays, with a premium on match ticket prices, the sense of being treated like a customer will mean you start to act like one. When expectations aren't met, the atmosphere sours.

For clubs like ours, Newcastle and Villa, there is also a glass ceiling effect to consider. When you've been playing in the top flight for a while - although Newcastle were relegated and then promoted again recently, overall they've spent much of their recent history in the Premier League - a sense of cynicism sets in. When you first get promoted, or when you feel you have a chance of winning something, there's reason to be excited and make noise. When the teams above start to pull away, but prices remain the same and playing the likes of Manchester United is less of a novelty, frustration and ennui set in. It's only natural the Stadium of Light is not the bouncing, electric arena it was in the late 90 and early 2000s.

This could explain why the likes of Crystal Palace, with their smaller crowds, have a better atmosphere and stronger home record than traditionally bigger clubs. They also have to rely on winning games at Selhurst Park as their away form is so poor. Unfortunately that didn't stop them claiming a point this weekend.

Ultimately the atmosphere is secondary to performances on the pitch, where the players must take responsibility for their displays, regardless of the sound being emitted from the stands. There is a tactical issue to consider, which applies as much to the sides visiting as it does the home crowd.

The Palace game is a prime example of why we struggle at home. We simply do not have the tools to break down a side that comes looking for a point, or to try and snatch all three on the break. Gus Poyet likes his team to keep the ball, but by possession football by its very nature can be easy for a team set up in the right way to defend against. When you lack guile and creativity, then it's a lot easier to exploit space away from home, when the opposition are forced to come onto you. Although Fulham are dire themselves, this is partly why we were able to dismantle them. The likes of Ki and Johnson were able to thrive in the space offered by their opponents.

Aston Villa by contrast, like the opposition to have the ball, so that they can exploit space on the break. When away teams visit Villa Park, Lambert doesn't have the players to get his side on the front foot and if the opposition sit in and defend, then they are unable to use their main asset, pace on the break. If no space develops, there's none to exploit. With both Villa and Sunderland having various struggles against relegation this season - though they now look pretty secure in mid table - it's easy to see why it creates anxiety amongst the fans.

Spurs, predominantly in the Villas Boas era, had similar problems as we do when it comes to breaking sides down, despite having a higher calibre of player. A lack of pace and a malfunctioning system were better suited to the openings created away from home. Under Sherwood, it's been a case of being too open against the better sides that has been their undoing. A growing sense that he is not the man for the job is unlikely to help matters at White Hart Lane.

Away from the pressure of Old Trafford, Manchester United's more cautious approach under Moyes has garnered a few more results, though generally speaking their season has been a disaster by their lofty standards. It is noticeable that a number of weaker sides, including Newcastle and West Brom have been able to win at Old Trafford due to a general lack of gusto in the Manchester United attack, making them easier to counter attack against.

With Newcastle, it's difficult to ascertain exactly what Pardew's style of play is, but with the pace of Remy, Gouffran and others in attack, it's no surprise they've been able to counter attack to good effect when playing away from home. This was illustrated in their recent demolition of Hull, who are one of those sides with a generally good home record this season.

Perhaps fans of those other clubs will disagree with my assessment and it would be interesting to know some of their thoughts on the issue, but with Southampton's home and away records also very similar, it'll be interesting to see if this becomes a trend over time. They certainly seem better suited to sides attacking them, despite being more than comfortable in possession themselves. Southampton are, in a sense, a more refined, higher quality version of the side Poyet has tried to assemble here.

One thing is certain, the crowd will be behind Sunderland for the coming weeks and months, but the players simply cannot afford to choke and if the tactical approach isn't working, then Poyet will need to alter it. Of all of those clubs doing better away from home, we are the ones with the toughest away run in and the most to lose if we fail to turn the Stadium of Light back into the fortress it once was.

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