Not so long ago, I was surprised when Sunderland managed to muddle together a reasonable performance. Victories were not only rare but often undeserved, so much so that I often failed to savour them amongst a wave of relief, but mainly disbelief that we had actually managed to win a game while playing so poorly.
Now, however, I find myself quite optimistic and in possession of logical reasons for why we can get a win on Saturday. While I will be feeling many emotions at 5pm if we have collected three points, surprise will not be one of them.
Since the turn of the year, I have seen a Sunderland team that is consistently showing the ability to perform under pressure and a resolute desire to compete against any opponent and not lose the game. I’m struggling to remember a time when the players seemed to care about results and respect the fans so much.
This does not mean I expect an easy game at the weekend. Stoke are a talented and accomplished team, capable of outplaying any Premier League side on their day. With everyone fit, there is quality all over their team. A solid spine, flare players, goals and intensity. So why has their season been petering out with a whimper?
Firstly, they have struggled without the injured Jack Butland, who has been massive for them this season. Shay Given is a poor imitation of what he once was, while their third choice keeper Jakob Haugaard is untested and young. Butland has performed brilliantly, keeping ten clean sheets and boasting one of the highest save percentages in the league, guaranteeing himself a place in England’s Euro 2016 squad before injury struck. Losing him was bound to impact upon their form.
Injuries have been mounting for the Potters in general, with Given limping off against Man City and big players like Walters, Johnson Shaqiri and Afellay succumbing to injuries. Three consecutive four goal defeats against Liverpool, Spurs and Man City, have led to questions about whether Mark Hughes’ Stoke City are already on their summer holidays.
The three teams they’ve been well beaten by could hammer anyone on their day. When taking into account their injury list, it is unsurprising they have struggled recently. It is essential that we put Stoke’s form into context and we respect them and their abilities, if we are to emerge with a vital victory. Mark Hughes will hate the idea that his team are no longer trying and we must be cautious of a backlash against such suggestions.
So how do we beat Stoke? Stoke’s goalkeeping situation is an obvious frailty that we can and should exploit. Plenty of corners and free kicks into dangerous areas, especially with the height and power of Kaboul, Kone and Kirchhoff, should reap rewards. We must also keep the danger men quiet. £18m January signing Giannelli Imbula is an impressive player who likes to get on the ball and carry it forward, with his passing and shooting technique a particular threat. It will be vital that our midfield starves him of time and space on the ball.
The most impressive player this season for Stoke has been Marko Arnautovic. He is strong and quick and though he has been known to have moments of poor temperament, he has found consistency this season. He is extremely important for Stoke in terms of holding the ball up and turning defence into attack, while he has added goals to his game. Yedlin will have his hands full against him.
Bojan and Shaqiri, if fit, are extremely talented and capable of moments of magic, though Shaqiri has struggled to establish himself as Stoke’s main man. If we do not respect them, however, there is more than enough quality to punish us. Fortunately, having seen what I have from Sunderland recently, it seems like Big Sam has finally got a team playing for the shirt, prepared for the opposition and careful not to underestimate the challenge.
We have been fairly fortunate with injuries compared to some teams, but we were struggling to find an identity and system with the players available. Until January, Big Sam was fighting a losing battle with the squad available. We have missed Kaboul for large parts of this season, while Koné was the missing piece of the defensive puzzle that provides composure, as well as his now legendary strength and power that is such a joy to watch.
Silently and unnoticed, however, Koné is demonstrating the invaluable ability to read the game, take up excellent positions and help organise the defence. Also, Big Sam has clearly been working on Yedlin and Van Aanholt defensively and at this crucial stag of the season, that is starting to pay dividends in the form of solid defensive performances and clean sheets.
It sounds crazy, but I am loving being a Sunderland fan right now. People call me crazy when I speak so highly of a team in so much trouble. But we are without doubt paying the price for the squad, attitude and fitness levels we had in the first half of the season. If we had this team, this mentality and this confidence at the start of the season, we would not be anywhere near this position.
We are where we are, however. I just hope it doesn’t end in tears for us. Someone has to go down and of course it could very well be us. Beating Stoke will go a long way towards helping make sure it is someone else who drops down to the Championship. I’d be thrilled and relieved if we can do it, but it’s getting to the stage now where I would no longer be surprised.