I am as guilty as anyone in craving a reduction of player power and more honesty from managers, while simultaneously craving positivity and less blame directed towards the players. Regardless of the veracity of Moyes’ statements, it seems unwise for a manager to take his players on via the media in the modern game, where José Mourinho can be hastily jettisoned from Chelsea - a club at which he was revered by fans - after losing the dressing room.
In contrast to his usual approach, Moyes was quick to state before the game that he felt Adnan Januzaj’s absence through injury had come at a bad time, as he had been in good form so far this season. To many of us who have watched Sunderland this season, that was a baffling assessment. At best Januzaj has been inconsistent and failed to make a sufficient impact, while at worst it could be said that he has hidden in games and looked decidedly disinterested. However, the defence of his prize loanee after a slow start to life on Wearside is more in keeping with what we should be seeing from a manager who wants to retain the faith and loyalty of his players, and ultimately his job.
While tentatively praising his players after the West Brom game - though still insinuating a draw was perhaps all this team could be expected to produce - Moyes appeared to direct his ire at the clubs lack of investment in forward areas, comparing West Brom’s superior attacking options to his own threadbare squad. However, this may have elicited more sympathy from myself had his thus far unimpressive £8m defender not languished on the bench. While we do not know the true nature of transfer dealings behind the scenes at the club, it seems clear to me that Moyes had ultimate control during the transfer window, with most signings familiar to him and his new chief scout.
I have heard it said that Moyes’ comments have been unfairly interpreted, as they were merely symptomatic of his frustration and disappointment during post match interviews. It seems to me that all football managers have dark days and experience disappointment, anger and even contempt towards their players. However, if he wants to keep the players on side, I would recommend saving the budgetary complaints for boardroom meetings and the players limitations for the training field.
In terms of the game, Moyes started with a 4-3-3 formation, but was forced into a change when Kirchhoff pulled up with a hamstring strain, and was replaced by Van Aanholt. Credit must go to Moyes for the change in formation to 3-5-2. He could have made a like for like substitution and brought on Rodwell, while we have seen Moyes play Donald Love and John O’Shea in a holding midfield role this season. Moyes could have stuck with the same formation, playing Van Aanholt at left back, moving Denayer alongside Koné and O’Shea into midfield. Instead, Van Aanholt went in at left wing back and Watmore was able to move infield to a central attacking role alongside Defoe, no doubt his best position.
While Moyes can claim this as a small victory, it does not mask the poor football we saw for the first seventy minutes. Our first shot on target was in the 80th minute and West Brom enjoyed many good chances throughout the game. Though Sunderland have looked solid on many occasions this season, there seems to be precious little idea or understanding once we have the ball and try to attack. Didier Ndong has brought some energy and composure to midfield, though his presence further forward would be of greater benefit to the team and may help us win possession further up the pitch and attack with more intent and momentum.
The decision to select Khazri was vindicated by a solid performance, though we should not praise Moyes too highly for this decision. Many Sunderland fans have been clamouring for the inclusion of the Tunisian playmaker for weeks and the injuries to Januzaj and Pienaar must have made this decision fairly inevitable. While Moyes did leave out Gooch who has featured more regularly than Khazri so far, it will be interesting to see what Moyes does when Januzaj and Pienaar return to fitness.
We could read into the dominance of the last twenty minutes on Saturday, or the entire second half against Middlesbrough, as evidence of an improvement or the potential of this squad to control games. However, I believe our ability to establish such superiority has been more due to Middlesborough and West Brom being happy to let us have the ball and defend their lead. I suppose we can take heart that on both occasions our players were determined to pursue the result. But ultimately, the harsh truth is that for large portions of this game we looked devoid of ideas and significantly short on confidence and self belief.
I believe in praise where it is due. Moyes’ decision to introduce Van Aanholt as a left wing back and alter the formation directly contributed to a goal that earned us a point. He could have made the easy changes and didn’t, so he deserves some credit for that. And if there’s anything we should have learned from Big Sam’s tenure, it’s that a point is better than nothing and gradual improvement can lead to enjoyable and productive football.
However, one point from a possible six at home to Crystal Palace and West Brom is not a good return and we can hardly complain that performances have warranted more overall. We can look at supposed instances of bad luck, but such examples are more accurately described as poor concentration, missed opportunities and an inability to execute basic defending for the full duration of the game.
We have been solid at times, but ultimately look like a team easily rattled and devoid of attacking ideas, until teams have taken the lead and decided to drop off, defend and allow us to play with more freedom. Meanwhile, Moyes continues to provide the media with negative and newsworthy comments that would be best saved for private exchanges.
Moyes still has a lot to do to convince me that he has the temperament, confidence or a viable plan to keep us in the Premier League. Saturday wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t a triumph either. I see some reasonable decisions and at times the team looks solid. But I also see a team with a confused identity, lacking in ideas and seemingly incapable of maintaining concentration and discipline for a full ninety minutes.
When all is said and done, Moyes has had sufficient time to implement a clear approach, identity and discipline into the team, but I am failing to see it consistently in the games. That is what troubles me the most.
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