Sunderland are struggling, both on and off the pitch. On the pitch, a lack of goals scored, too many conceded, and a lack of any distinguishable system or style are just a few of the problems that David Moyes has to address. Off the pitch, Sunderland currently top the Premier League table (no, sadly not that one) for injuries, with eight. Moyes has made a disastrous start to his career on Wearside and deserves the criticism that has been aimed his way, but the pile of injured players has certainly not helped matters on the pitch.
While the injury that saw Patrick van Aanholt depart Saturday’s game at Stoke mid-way through the first half could prove to be disastrous, considering nobody at the club had the brains to sign a senior left back to provide competition, the absences of Fabio Borini, Lee Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson have been even more damaging to the side this season, and will continue to be until they eventually return to the starting line-up.
It’s perhaps indicative of the club’s perpetual struggles and lack of progression that we’re not only longing for the return of Larsson and Cattermole, in particular, but seemingly desperate for their return. Both, after all, have been core members of squads that have struggled to survive for the past four years, and many would suggest that we need to improve on their kind if we want to progress as a club. But progressing as a club seems to be out of the question for yet another season, with Sunderland facing a fifth successive fight for survival. And they know what it takes.
None of the trio are world-beaters, and none of them are great, or even very good, technically. But you know what you’ll get with them – hard work, determination, and a desire to lead by example. And you can guarantee that they’ll put a shift in for the team. With the club in a precarious position and many fans fearing for its Premier League status after just eight games, that’s exactly what we need. A losing side, to an extent, will often be given the benefit of the doubt, or at least some leeway, if the fans can see commitment and effort on the pitch. Yet on Saturday, in the crushingly disappointing defeat at Stoke, it’s hard to say that we saw a committed Sunderland side out on the pitch.
Although his aim has been wayward in recent outings, Jermain Defoe can score a goal out of nothing. With Defoe in your side, you always have a chance to win. Sam Allardyce knew that, and set his teams up accordingly. With energetic and industrious players across the midfield in his 4-1-4-1 setup, Allardyce ensured that the team remained defensively solid while being able to break and drive on the counter attack. The high energy of Wahbi Khazri and Borini provided cover in defence and attacking threat down the wings, while the industry and pressing of Yann M’Vila and Cattermole allowed Jan Kirchhoff to dictate play from deep while disrupting the opposition’s game.
One of the most obvious shortcomings in the current Sunderland side is the distinct lack of a midfield presence. They aren’t offering help in attack. They aren’t offering help in defence. There’s no pressing of the opposition and there’s certainly no supply to the forward positions. They’re just…there. Jack Rodwell will go down as one of the biggest transfer flops, and probably the most expensive, in Sunderland history. It’s hard to think of even one thing that he offers this team. He also holds the dubious honour of starting the most games at a Premier League club without ending up on the winning side, with 31. Bad luck? Coincidence? Or just plain rubbish? Paddy McNair is inexperienced in a midfield position in league football and Didier Ndong is still adjusting to a completely different culture and style of play.
The trio made just two tackles between them against Stoke, and collectively allowed Joe Allen to arrive unmarked to head home Stoke’s first goal. They were, as most combinations have been this season, completely ineffective. For more reasons than one, it’s vital that we get Cattermole and Larsson back on the pitch as soon as possible. Both average more tackles and interceptions per game than Rodwell, and while their pass success falls slightly below Rodwell’s, both contribute more key passes per game. Regardless of statistical evidence, it’s clear how much more effective that they both are in midfield areas, both in attacking and defensive scenarios. When the going gets tough, you need to roll up your sleeves and fight, which both would undoubtedly do for the team. While Larsson has regressed from the goal scoring threat that he was when he arrived at Sunderland, he performs a vital function as a pain-in-the-arse busybody midfielder with a Duracell fitted to his back. And Cattermole, whose range of passing has gone underappreciated for a while now, brings bite and tenacity to the middle, if nothing else.
The point is that while both Larsson and Cattermole are limited footballers, they are also functional players who provide the team with recognisable qualities, not least in terms of their play, which is something that the team is sorely lacking at present. Beyond their contributions as footballers, the midfield duo are also two of the most experienced players on the team. They’ve been there, done that – you know how it ends. They know what it takes to drag Sunderland’s almost lifeless body to safety year after year.
In a team sorely lacking leaders and pitch presence, the return of two of the club’s most vocal players cannot come quickly enough. While Larsson’s pointing and moaning has become somewhat of a running gag between Sunderland fans, the effectiveness of his willing to make his feelings known on the pitch to both the opposition and officials should not be underestimated. And we all know how willing Cattermole is to make his presence felt on the pitch to both allies and enemies.
Much of this has been dedicated to our injured middle-men, such is the non-existent state of our midfield. But it’s important not to forget the impact of Fabio Borini’s absence on the team. The Italian’s tenacity and tireless effort played a large part in Allardyce’s ability to turn Sunderland into a solid unit, with his pressing from the front and defensive diligence alleviating the pressure on the backline. The struggling Javi Manquillo would certainly welcome Borini’s support at right back. Borini is a heart on sleeve, or mouth in knife, if you like, type of player. Like Larsson and Cattermole, you can guarantee that he will put everything into a performance, and while he has often flattered to deceive in attack, he provides an important link between the final third and the midfield, and has a tendency to score goals at vital times.
The returns of Borini, Cattermole and Larsson will certainly not single-handedly save Sunderland’s season. David Moyes must solve a number of issues to prevent this season from being the straw that broke the camel’s back. One thing that is certain, though, is that their returns will provide Sunderland with some much needed presence, leadership, fight, and even some quality. And boy, do we need it.