Last December, Bolo Zenden made the plea for his team mates to "get hold of the ball and try to dominate games". We look at how Sunderland's ability to heed Bolo's advice in the remaining games just might define our season.
In many ways, Bolo Zenden is the very epitome of what all Sunderland fans want to see our club evolve into. Blessed with superb technique and a passion, like many of his countrymen, for attractive passing football whilst also possessing a steadfast dedication to the game, the Dutchman has played for some of the most prestigious clubs in Europe and competed on the biggest stages for the biggest honours. For the last 15 years, Zenden has blazed a trail across Europe winning medals with regularity and enjoying regular forays into European competition. He even won something with Middlesbrough. So it is with considerable credibility that Zenden asserted his belief of what Sunderland must do make the transition into becoming a genuine top club. Speaking to the BBC in December, he said "There's still a long way to go. We need to get hold of the ball and try to dominate games".
Story continues...Probably for the first time in decades Sunderland have assembled a squad with sufficient quality and technical proficiency to make this a realistic objective, as Chelsea discovered at Stamford Bridge back in November. The quality is there, and a twenty minute spell after half time at Stoke which was completely dictated by Sulley Muntari from the sanctuary of the centre circle offered a further tantalizing glimpse into what could be achieved. We have forwards capable of holding it, midfielders capable of winning it, passing it, and supporting the man in possession, and full backs willing to occupy space I the final third. From a quality perspective, just about everything is just about all in place.
So that tends to suggest that our failure to transition that quality into territorial gains and dominance of the ball more often is, as Zenden alluded to, a mentality issue. Perhaps we suffer from a lack of courage in these situations, fearing an onslaught from the crowd for not showing enough urgency, or a lack of confidence in the philosophy, or a lack of confidence in ourselves to feel worthy of dictating a game at this level. Perhaps it is a simple lack of patience, or experience, or maybe even a lack of genuine leadership on the field. Now don’t get me wrong here, the current Sunderland side and management are to be commended for the football they try to, and quite often do, play, but we need to start dictating the terms upon which we play that football considerably better.
Obviously no one is saying we should be repeating the Chelsea performance up and down the country every week. That would be completely unrealistic, even though we have shown we are capable of it. It was also unrealistic to expect to wrestle an even share of possession for ourselves at the Emirates, never mind a dominant one. But when we went to Goodison Park lately, our performance was littered with an abundance of haste resulting in the repeated squandering of possession as our midfield, in particular, seemed obsessed with making every single ball a penetrative one. Aside from Muntari's twenty-minute master class, it was the same story at Stoke. The opportunity was there to simply retain possession, strangle the life out of the game, and force the home side deeper into their own half lessoning the effectiveness if their own attacking game.
The desire to create opportunities is clearly very commendable, but there must be a balance struck between attacking ambition and defensive responsibility. That balance seems to have disturbed of late with midfield players too often choosing to try and force an opening that was not there in attack when a simple pass and retaining possession would relieve the pressure on their defence. However surely the difference between chaos and craft is simply patience, and that seems to be a virtue sadly lacking from our midfield during the middle part of the season. If we can curtail that almost insatiable desire to create a little and fuse it with a passion for possession, what results may just prove to be the biggest and most central piece of the jigsaw. Put simply, to control a game you must dominate the ball. We now have the players to do it. It is time we developed a the courage and desire to do it too.
Moving forward into the final run-in, the fixtures are, on paper, looking considerably kinder, and it is during those games against that kind of opposition when we will find our true test about how close we are to matching the ambitions of the fans. The team will have the opportunity to make a real statement and impose themselves and their game upon the opposition, but whether or not they use that opportunity to decide to trust themselves to dominate the ball and dictate the game will tell us an awful lot about just how far the current squad can take us.