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Black Cats Analects: "The Problem"

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The luck-charmed managerial merry-go-round won’t save us this time.

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"… We had one system; everybody knew what they had to do [last season].  Now you try something, and it’s not working, so we have to go back to the basics … it’s difficult for me to put my finger on what the problem is …"

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.  Maybe that line sums up Sunderland’s recent misadventures in the Premier League.  It refers to the idea of an established order; that no matter how you dress up a thing, it doesn’t change the systems at its root.  For Sunderland AFC, has a long-standing status quo created the ‘problem’ that Dick Advocaat has referred to?

The idea of the club operating amidst such internal mess was taken less seriously when it was publicly howled out by Paolo Di Canio in 2013.  Unfortunately, when it was referred to again in 2014 – by Gus Poyet – many believed that the ‘problem’ at the club was the Uruguayan himself.  Conversely, for Advocaat to be lost for words on the matter is a real concern.

Where Di Canio and Poyet portrayed abundant passion and ambitious vision, Advocaat instead holds the accolades of a successful managerial career.  He has the reputation and track record of a proven winner.  And if he cannot kill off this apparent ‘problem’ at Sunderland, then relegation is inevitable.  No club can possibly be so lucky as to avoid the drop so many times.

But what is this ‘problem’? Its closest recent description came in April 2014 from Gus Poyet (who offered to resign at the time), saying;

"… there’s something wrong at the club … if we don’t find [what it is] we’ll always have a problem … too many things have gone wrong over too long a time … what happened to [O’Neill, Bruce, Di Canio]? What has happened to me? … the problem might remain, it’s always the manager who goes."

How right he was.  It’s not as if these have been poor managers either.  Di Canio and Poyet aside; Steve Bruce had at least a respectable record, whereas false messiah Martin O’Neill took Aston Villa to dizzy heights the Villans may not see again for a long time.

So then, if the head coach isn’t the problem, is it the players? Di Canio sure thought so.  Just 5 months ago, the tyrannical Italian revealed;

"… this team is just looking for three worse teams to leave behind … in the previous years [before my appointment], no fines were given, despite players getting drunk and partying until late … it’s fundamental to keep order in the dressing room [but] my project was immediately cut off."

Now, take away the pantomime antics of Di Canio himself, and the ex-head coach might be onto something.  He’s definitely not lying – Phil Bardsley proved that with his casino-based tomfoolery.  He proved it again later by mocking the coach – and his team-mates’ – loss to Fulham in the 2013/14 season.

Now, there’s no evidence to suggest every player at the club is some raging alcoholic gambler, but the culture of effort within the squad is questionable.  Just read the Sunderland Echo for the next player to promise what the team is going to do – as if their reputation is based entirely on what they say should happen.  It all suggests another theory on the ‘problem’: that these players cannot respond, they can only react.

Take this past fixture.  After losing 1-3 to Norwich City, locker-room leader Lee Cattermole could not comprehend what happened in his post-match interview.  He had no response to it.  He didn’t know why the team lost – only that they were "unrecognisable".  However, he did reiterate a common explanation to Sunderland’s recent woes – the team "fell apart" as soon as they went behind.  No response – only a negative reaction.  The team gave up.  Again.

For all that Cattermole is an ever-industrious player, it is curious to hear him be uncertain as to what Sunderland’s problem is.  After all, the midfielder has been the only constant in the squad since 2009.  He is the core of the squad.  And if his team cannot play together, then how much more influential does he need to be now?

One player whose influence has been missed (at least on the pitch) is John O’Shea.  As physically limited as he is, the Irishman has the experience to organise a decent defensive line.  For the sake of stopping the rot at the back, it may be a sensible solution to restore O’Shea to the first team, at least until an appropriate replacement can be found.  No doubt, there are much better defenders out there than the captain, but to have a brilliant eye for the game can be a greater asset than just having faster legs.

Speaking of faster legs – Duncan Watmore definitely isn’t the problem.  Seeing him finally on the pitch was a religious experience in itself.  That he put in a shift more, after months of being snubbed, than the assured first team regulars says a lot about him and the squad.

However, when it comes to the players, a lot of common disgruntled remarks have returned: "there’s no pace in midfield, the team needs a new striker, there’s no support for the strikers, there’s no recognised left-back, now there’s a left-back but he’s awful, stop selling our best players, etc".  These are all valid arguments, so perhaps the ‘problem’ is simply that the current team just isn’t good enough.

It’s a sorry thing to admit, but it’s true.  It is very easy to romanticise the strengths of the players, from Seb Larsson’s work rate to Danny Graham’s … work rate, but it is still a group of underachievers who only look good on paper.  It’s not as if they don’t try.  If they didn’t try, they wouldn’t put up the level of fight that wins 5 consecutive derbies; so there is at least a silver lining that they respect the fans enough to turn up when it matters most (derby fixtures and relegation battles).  But maybe, to bust a gut every week is too much to ask of them – and they are just too restricted to be any better.

And that brings up the most commonly perceived ‘problem’ at the club: the need for ‘quality’ signings.  Or, to put bluntly: the Chairman needs to cough up.  More volatile supporters have demanded it for years and now – especially now – even the more passive fan can agree.

Without being ungrateful, it is a reasonable call, and the end would justify the means.  Spending a few million now, with a huge pay packet coming to Premier League clubs next season, is wholly worth it.  That said, Sunderland has been transparent on its stance as far back as 2012, when Margaret Byrne explained how Chairman Ellis Short ‘virtually’ buys players from his own pocket; how the club seeks a long-term plan of financial stability and quality recruits until the TV deal occurs.  That bonanza 2016 pay day has always been the end-game for Ellis Short.  The big time spending was never meant to happen until the debt was wiped.

Of course, it’s not as if Ellis Short has refused to splash out since his club sole-ownership began in May 2009.  The Missouri native handed £32.59m to build Steve Bruce’s vision for Sunderland in the 09/10 season.  He gave Bruce another £25.06m to keep building on that vision in the 10/11 season.  In the end, he even gave Bruce another £24.86m in the 11/12 campaign to build an entirely new squad.  Undisclosed fees not included, that’s £82.51m – to one manager.

Martin O’Neill later convinced Short to spend his most seasonal expenditure to date in the 12/13 season.  Near £33.71m was handed to the Irishman over two transfer windows; procuring Steven Fletcher, Adam Johnson, Danny Graham and Alfred N’Diaye.

Naturally, there is the argument that Ellis Short is guilty of making sales to subsidise these tremendous spending sprees.  It’s unsurprising that he did, considering that between June 2009 and January 2013, the Chairman had personally fronted £116.22m with little return to show for it.  However, when including all income from player sales in that time, the true value of Short’s personal loss on transfer spending equated to around £27.09m.  Only the 2010/11 season saw a personal profit for Short, and that was largely due to the unexpected sale of Darren Bent.

This is all without getting into the amortisation of transfer payments.

Even for a Chairman with a net worth over $6.3 billion, to willfully play bystander to an annual loss and constant failures was becoming ridiculous.  It was inevitable Short would opt for a new recruitment strategy.  His trust in messiah-molded strikers was surely shattering and it was becoming painfully obvious that these "star players" were not worth long-term investments, while others – such as Simon Mignolet and James McClean – at least had strong sell-on value.  The near-non-existent transfer spending of West Bromwich Albion under Sporting Director Dan Ashworth must’ve also been an encouraging indication that the club could still thrive on a low budget.

But even the ‘Udinese Model’ ended up making a loss.  The combined De Fanti/Di Canio/Poyet recruitment in the 13/14 season ended in £29.83m spent, £22.45m sold.  With a seasonal loss of £7.38m – and the club’s worst points return since 2009 – it’s clear to see why Short would want to hold off bankrolling the club until that TV deal comes in.  Even this cautious approach to spending is not working out too well.  Take last season.  After sales, Short lost another £8.55m under the Congerton/Poyet recruitment, and is still watching a club completely bereft of success.  Where should Short draw the line on how his money is used?

For example, we’re all hoping the Chairman will spend big on a centre forward who can replicate Darren Bent’s goal ratio.  It’s a fair request – we do need this.  But it’s also fair for Ellis Short to ask why, since 2009, the £68.57m he has bankrolled on recognized strikers (not including loanees), is not already enough?

Not to mention the wage bill.  That was £54m just two seasons ago.

So then, is this the problem now? Was the Chairman’s trust in Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill misguided? In hindsight, does he wish he had taken the cautious approach in those earlier years to allow for carefree spending now? Financial Fair Play doesn’t work in his favor, and sponsorship deals can only go so far.  Why else would Lee Congerton – the man responsible for securing Hamburger SV’s Bundesliga status on an extremely tight budget – be brought in to keep the Premier League dream alive in these final months before Short’s end-game pays off? Enough fans already think Congerton himself is the problem.

It would seem that, whatever this problem is, it’s something that can be fixed – at least temporarily – by new recruits.  Yann M’Vila and Jeremain Lens are excellent acquisitions, as would have been Leroy Fer and Nicolas Lombaerts.  But the club cannot stop there.  If Ellis Short chooses to, he has the opportunity now to gamble it all for the biggest pay-off in the club’s history.  This is the final hurdle for him now, and it would be a killer blow to fall now.

Sunderland has gone too long riding luck and unpredictable season-ending spells to remain in the Premier League.  Yet the underlying problem still exists.  Let that be the problem to resolve when the cushion of financial stability will allow it.  In the meantime, if there is a problem with the current team; whether they be a group who don’t recognize each other, or who give up when falling behind, or just look for 3 worse teams; it is now more important than ever to build over that problem.  Supporters have been right the whole time – the time for those ‘quality’ signings is now.