Gus Poyet made only one change to the side which ground out a 0-0 draw at Anfield last Saturday with Lee Cattermole returning from suspension to replace Liam Bridcutt at the base of midfield. Steven Fletcher was deemed fit enough to feature after recovering from a knock, but Jozy Altidore was given the nod to lead the line leaving the Scotsman on the bench.
Sunderland lined up in their usual 4-1-4-1 formation.
Sam Allardyce also made only one change to his side following their 3-1 victory over Swansea last weekend. Diafra Sahko returned to first team action replacing Enner Valencia in midfield.
The Hammers were without key man Mark Noble who was absent with a shin injury.
West Ham lined up in a 4-3-1-2 system.
West Ham have been the Premier League’s surprise high-flyers this season, and arrived at the Stadium of Light on the back of an impressive three game winning streak which included victories over Swansea and Newcastle.
Large pockets of Hammers fans were calling for the head of Sam Allardyce this time last year, voicing an open distaste for the veteran manager’s style of play. But just a year on the 60-year-old has been able to silence his critics, and thanks to some strong financial backing in the summer transfer window, Allardyce has managed to implement a more attractive brand of football at Upton Park and has some real footballing talent at his disposal.
Aside from a fistful of games this season, Sunderland have looked solid and organised defensively – despite being forced to juggle a number of injuries. In preparation for Saturday’s game it was vital that the Black Cats matched their dogged defensive performance at Anfield if they were to gain a positive result, and show a cutting edge which was absent last week if they were to grab all three points.
Another draw, Sunderland’s 10th in just 16 games, and while it’s a relatively solid result against a good West Ham team in form, I’m going to look this week at why Poyet’s side are struggling to convert these good performances into wins.
From a defensive perspective I think Poyet will be very pleased with how his side is looking as we approach the mid-way point in the season. As I say, aside from a fistful of games Sunderland have looked drilled and efficient at the back, and were unlucky to concede via a deflected effort from Stewart Downing on Saturday.
The unquestionable problem for Sunderland this season has been conversion. With just 14 goals dispatched only Burnley have scored less in the Premier League, and it took a penalty from Jordi Gomez for the Black Cats to notch their only goal of the game against West Ham.
With a full squad at his disposal, Poyet’s 4-1-4-1 system from an attacking perspective can be characterised by its inclusion of two advanced midfielders who play almost as inside forwards encouraged to come inside and support the lone striker, and two overlapping full-backs which provide the main width in attacking phases. These are the key areas of penetration in the current system, and with this in mind it is easy to locate the reasons why Sunderland are struggling to score goals this season.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, none of the current strikers at the club are capable of playing efficiently enough in a lone centre-forward role. To play successfully as a lone striker you need to be combative, physically imposing, able to link up play and ultimately have the ability to fashion your own chances – the latter being very important. The perfect example of this – outside of the Premier League elite – would be Wilfried Bony. The Ivorian is a very well rounded player, he has averaged a goal in every two games during his time at the Liberty Stadium and he brings others into play really well. Obviously players such as Bony are difficult to unearth, and even more difficult for the more modest top division sides to keep hold of, but it’s crucial that Poyet finds one soon if he intends to continue utilising a lone centre-forward. The low conversion figures of Sunderland’s strikers cannot solely be put down to inadequate service, it has to be recognised that they simply aren’t comfortable playing without a partner and receiving a high proportion of their touches with their back to goal.
Advanced midfield/inside forwards.
With Emanuele Giaccherini and Ricky Alvarez troubled by injuries this season, Sunderland have been left somewhat short of options in this department. Since returning Alvarez has shown glimpses of promise and suggested that he perhaps could provide the impetus required to make things happen in the final third, but his reputation of inconsistency in Italy is something which slightly worries me. What worries me most is that Poyet is apparently adamant in utilising Connor Wickham from the left. The 21-year-old secured a four-year-contract at the club last week, but I’m uncertain of where he will feature long-term for the club – and it’s crucial for his development that this is decided soon. Wickham was instrumental in Sunderland’s survival last season with a number of crucial goals in the closing fixtures, but he has failed to carry that form into this campaign. Looking specifically at the game on Saturday, Wickham was hesitant in possession and in goal-scoring positions, and appears to lack the composure, technique and decision making quality to ever be creative – especially in his current role.
This is the area in which Sunderland have been most noticeably short-staffed this season. Santiago Vergini and Anthony Reveillere especially have put in admiral stand-in performances, but they are not the brand of full-back required for Poyet’s system to be effective from an attacking perspective. In the short time we saw Patrick Van Aanholt and Billy Jones feature in the same side, Sunderland were attacking with a lot more purpose, and appeared much more balanced overall. Looking at the visual below, you can see the difference in impact Van Aanholt and Reveilerre have in attacking areas. This was Van Aanholt's last full game for the Black Cats before his injury (Arsenal) and although only one of his five crosses are successful, it's the position he is getting himself into which is important.
Patrick Van Aanholt v Arsenal
Anthony Reveillere v West Ham
This is by no means an attack on the performance levels of Reveillere and Vergini, they just aren’t of the right ilk to provide the required width and impetus in the final third in comparison to Van Aanholt and Jones.
To conclude, it's important to reiterate that Sunderland are still very much in good shape. Looking at the bigger picture Poyet is doing a very good job in stabalising the club, and once that is achieved the next step then is to push on and consider targeting Premier League finishes higher up the table.
The Sunderland manager revealed this week that he aims to bring in four new faces in January, and the correct recruitment in the right positions really could go a long way to converting the high number of draws into potential victories. The system is in place, and the players seem to understand it, there is just a slight lack of quality most noticeably in attacking areas.
A very decent draw against a good West Ham side, and not at all a bad way to head into the derby next weekend.