1. Sunderland Could Very Easily Find Themselves In A Relegation Scrap
The club are currently 6 points off the relegation zone with 10 games left to go. While at the moment that looks like a fairly safe cushion, these things can quickly change. Birmingham were six points off the drop with just six games left in 2010/2011, before a poor end of season run left them relegated at the end of the season. This weekends game away to QPR is crucial, and a loss could see us fall into real trouble, especially as fellow strugglers Reading and Aston Villa face off against each other at the Madjeski.
Perhaps what's more worrying is that the teams below us look capable of putting a strong run together. While it's unlikely that QPR will be able to overturn a 10 point gap on Sunderland, even if they win on Saturday, elsewhere Villa's performances haven't quite matched their results this season and they have good players within their squad. Wigan have a history of getting out of trouble at this stage of the season, while Southampton have looked genuinely impressive under new manager Mauricio Pocchetino. While Sunderland should have enough to get the points they need, we'll still need to be looking over our shoulder for a while yet.
2. The Defence Is In Need Of Some Serious Rework
In recent weeks the side's defensive frailties have been left for all to see. Martin O'Neill will need to completely overhaul the back four, with only Danny Rose, should he sign permanently, being guaranteed a starting place. Titus Bramble and Matt Kilgallon look certain for the exit door this summer, while Carlos Culler hasn't impressed and is starting to get on. John O'Shea's form this season has been patchy to say the least, while at right back, penalty time bomb Craig Gardner just doesn't look like he can cut it. O'Neill is clearly going to have to focus on this area in summer, but his past transfer dealings in this position doesn't exactly breed confidence. While at Aston Villa, the Northern Irishman brought in the likes of Zat Knight, Curtis Davies, Nicky Shorey, Luke Young, Habib Beye and Stephen Warnock, none of which went on to do great things. He will need to improve on his record here if Sunderland are going to improve at the back.
3. There's A Worrying Lack Of Creativity
It's become abundantly clear in recent weeks just how much Sunderland are lacking in creative outlets. Only Stephen Sessegnon has produced in the last few games, at times looking like the team's only solid goal threat. Adam Johnson has yet to prove he's worth the 10 million pound paid for him or the hype that surrounded his capture. While 4 assists and 4 goals isn't a the worst return, you'd still expect more, and his delivery has been nothing short of abysmal of late. James McClean meanwhile is suffering from a severe case of 'second seasons syndrome'. McClean has produced nothing like the performances he did when he first burst onto the scene and has been even less reliable that Johnson when it comes to providing creativity. Only 14 of the Irishman's 102 crosses this season have reached their target. Sebastian Larsson's move to the middle has hindered his game severely, and in recent weeks even his set-piece delivery has looked weak. It's clear that, Sessegnon aside, Sunderland have no creativity at the moment, and this must be addressed as soon as possible.
4. The Club May Need To Start Looking For A Lee Cattermole Replacement
Sunderland's poor defensive performances over the last couple of months is almost certainly linked to the absence of their captain. The protection Cattermole offers the back four is something that can't be under-estimated, and the team concede considerably less goals with their skipper in the team than without him. The problem is they've been without him too much. Due to a combination of his poor injury and disciplinary record, Cattermole has never played more than 25 league games a season for the club since his arrival in 2009. This season he's be restricted to just 10 league appearances, and with O'Neill recently saying the former Wigan man may need surgery on his troublesome knee, he's likely to be out for even longer. This wouldn't be too big an issue if Sunderland had someone who could comfortably fit into Cattermole's role, but they don't have any kind of credible back-up. Unless he can shake off his injury problems, a similar replacement is surely needed.
5. O'Neill's Tactics Haven't Developed Enough Through His Career
Even if Sunderland do comfortably survive this season, and then spend the summer bringing in the players they need, will O'Neill be able to use them correctly? Performances this season have generally been dour, with occasionally overly negative tactics and a lack of a clear Plan B. Sunderland under the Ulsterman often come across as one-dimensional with a over reliance on wing play and certain under-performing players. While he was manager at Leicester, O'Neill's style was often direct and ugly, with a large reliance of playing down the wings, but this was necessary pragmatism on the Northern Irishman's part, with the East Midlands club having a small budget and limited players. As time has gone on, O'Neill has generally gotten more expansive, but even at Aston Villa, he was very direct, with an over-reliance on the pace of the likes of Young and Agbonlahor. Similar criticisms have been levelled at Sunderland's style of play. We can't exactly blame O'Neill for wanting to implement a system that has worked form him so well in the past, but now that it isn't, he looks worryingly out of clear ideas of how to take the team forward. Do you really want to watch the boring football we've been producing this year for another season?