Team Selection: Understandable but mixed
Chris Coleman planned to send out an unchanged lineup from the one that defeated Burton Albion last week for the game against Reading. However, Paddy McNair picked up an injury in the warm-up and thus was replaced by Darron Gibson for the game.
This was the only change and an enforced one, and in theory, Coleman was right in making so few changes to avoid disrupting a winning side.
On paper, we saw another typical collapse led by an “experienced” core of “leaders”. Well, they did lead... to another insipid home defeat.
There were only two contentious decisions with the starting lineup - whether or not to start Joel Asoro on the right for Callum McMananan, and how to replace the injured but important McNair at last minute.
For the first, I can see why Chris Coleman kept Asoro out of the side - he alluded to this in his pre-match press conference, although not explicitly. The Welshman lamented the way we have approached previous home games; desperate to impress and win, we rush out and run ourselves into the ground after a solid opening twenty minutes only to conceded somewhat against the run of play. Essentially, this was a surefire sign that we would keep the same eleven with McManaman a much safer option on the right due to his keen ability as a defensive winger. However, even aside from his ridiculous, stupid and damaging red card offence, this turned out to be the wrong decision.
For me - and I don’t mean to sound too harsh or judgemental at this early stage - Coleman simply got this one wrong. It is of course all to easy to proclaim in hindsight, but the first half was crying out for Asoro’s pace and raw excitement as a youngster to get in behind a shaky but well-advanced Reading defence who looked to play the ball way too often in dangerous areas.
Even for his own confidence, Asoro had to start. To finally get a chance, take it, and be rewarded with a start at home would’ve been miraculous for his confidence, and Asoro is very much a confidence player. Furthermore, his inclusion in the second-half showed just what we had been sorely missing all along, and down to ten men it was all just too little, too late. But more on that later.
On the midfield conundrum; it is clear Darron Gibson and Lee Cattermole cannot play together, abundantly so. They only have done successfully for the latter 20 minutes against a vastly inferior and fatigued Burton side. Against Reading - a possession-oriented side almost so much so to their own downfall at times - we needed more energy in the middle, especially when we went down to ten men.
Arguably, Coleman could’ve started Gooch over Gibson, or even changed it completely by bringing Cattermole out of the side and going with the three that was so efficient away to Villa.
He rightfully, however, did not want to disrupt the side too much, but it goes without saying that without that stupid red card, we may be having a different conversation here.
Verdict: I can see why Coleman kept McManaman in the team, but at such a key juncture, we needed Asoro, for both his confidence and our dynamism.
Tactics: A tale of two halves
Chris Coleman, as aforementioned, set up a similar team to last week aimed at breaking this home hoodoo. As such, it was an offensive lineup that was tasked to play carefully, meticulously and designed not to go behind early - and for 44 minutes it worked perfectly bar from grabbing that key first goal.
Everyone makes mistakes, but nobody else is to blame for the defeat as much as Callum McManaman is. Already on a yellow card from a typically McManaman late tackle (earnest and forgivable), he decided to bottle out of a header and challenge with both a Reading defender and on-rushing post, only to proceed to punch the ball into the net. The old Luis Suarez 2010 World Cup argument springs to mind, but for me, his stupidity was paramount and he has cost us the game.
Naturally, at the time many fans may not have seen the incident fully and the angst delivered towards referee Keith Stroud is understandable, but he got the decision spot-on.
Stroud is a card-happy ref, showing 49 yellows and three reds in ten games prior to Saturday, and with every day that passes and each replay of the incident watched, you cant help but be irate at the Scouse winger.
Coleman’s tactics worked in the first half, but what followed instead was an anemic, lazy and evidently disinterested second half performance from many of our players.
The players were rightfully told to remain in shape, holding position against a Reading team brimming with pace and trickery in Modou Barrow and Sone Aluko, but with a striker who refuses to press, players out of position and three of the most immobile, slowest players in the league playing, it was clear that there would be no way back in the game once Dave Edwards got the opening goal. We needed fresh legs in as soon as possible and it wasn’t forthcoming.
Defensive mistakes in the goals subsequently lost us the game, but the focus must be upon the sheer idiocy of McManaman’s act. The only positive is that managers discover much, much more about their players from such a loss than a 3-1 reverse victory.
Coleman has surely learned a lot from some more of his experience pros (namely McManaman, O’Shea, Cattermole, McGeady and Gibson) who sorely let us down. It says it all that a youngster in Joel Asoro showed more desire than those who have been “model professionals” for over a decade.
One quick note - Lee Cattermole was terrible and has been for some time. He can no longer pass short nor long, he constantly rushed out of midfield to leave gaping holes alongside him which Gibson was unable to cover, carried out numerous ill-timed and stupid challenges and in general looks a shadow of the player which looked to be transformed under Gus Poyet a few seasons ago.
Verdict: The first-half was clearly defined and carried out well defensively, we just needed that one goal. McManaman’s stupidity changed the game and our intransigent players had no chance of stemming the tide.
Substitutions: Too late
Coleman mad three changes over the course of the game - Bryan Oviedo was withdrawn with a slight hamstring knock for Brendan Galloway, and late on Joel Asoro and Lynden Gooch replaced McGeady and Cattermole.
The first was enforced, but luckily after the game Ovideo confirmed that he will be fine for Wolves away on Saturday. He’s been our most consistent performer this season, and despite Lewis Grabban’s eleven goals, is our player of the season thus far for me. It was an easy like-for-like change, though Galloway had a pretty anonymous performance (both good and bad).
On the other two, it is reassuring that Coleman identified which two players were playing poorly and struggling and needed to be replaced. I’d just have done both much, much earlier, arguably even at half time, but that’s by the by. We needed the pair’s energy when down to ten men - to a man, each player had to cover more ground and concentrate much more, and we just didn’t have the legs.
Reading’s game relies upon exactly this and they were actually very lucky to get such a big break just before half-time, as for much of the first-half they struggled to break us down with their drab possession football. They wanted us to make mistakes, get worn down and then capitalise. It doesn’t always work, but McManaman’s sending off played right into their hands. Coleman needed to react and change accordingly but disappointingly kept it the same.
Verdict: Correct substitutions but they were required much, much earlier.
Post-Match Comments: Well done
It was a big moment [McManaman’s sending off], and we kind of need that to go for us.
Especially here [at the SoL] where we have really struggled to get over the line. The goal is disallowed and then we get a man sent off - it is a big, big moment for us.
Reading play possession football, they keep the ball very well and you have to be patient against them.
They picked us off but the worst thing for us then was having only 10 men.
We are nervous here and you can see that.
We had a spring in our step in the last two games away from home but we are a bit nervous here.
We have to overcome that, there is no way round it.
Coleman once again got his presser spot-on, despite such a disappointing and demoralising manner of defeat. He had to focus on the red card, and rightfully without chastising McManaman in public. In doing so, he has given the players something to rally around next time, rather than continue to be demoralised.
His comments on the nerves at the SoL are both spot-on and interesting. I personally don’t know how we’ll overcome this run, unless we get some serious luck. Saturday was the first time many a Sunderland fan has been optimistic for a home game and looking forward to it, yet the atmosphere was still relatively drab and dull. Even with the increased turnout, the highest for some time, we still couldn’t get the players to perform.
Later on Coleman went on to claim:
It is another home game that we haven’t won.
We can talk about it for as long as we want but all we can do is get back to the training ground and start working towards the next game which is next weekend and try to get a performance to make sure we build on the last two games where there were some very good signs.
And there were some good signs against Reading up until we had a man sent off. After that we were up against it and Reading went on to deservedly win the game.
Joel is positive, he is direct, and I think he gave us a bit of life. He is very quick, and he didn’t have any fear.
When we are 3-0 down it is a huge mountain for us to climb.
We got a goal and then we had one or two situations where for whatever reason we were reluctant to pull the trigger.
We shouldn’t be. We should have a shot, but we don’t we seem to be always looking for that perfect moment which never comes.
There are a lot of things for us to think about, the players have been here many, many times.
So how do we get away from that and break that? That’s what we need to focus on as soon as we get back into training.
He explicitly mentions not taking a shot off, which, for me is due to the crowd at the SoL at times. We are rightfully nervous and apprehensive due to such an awful run of form. But at times, the SoL is an empty place to play football, and it’s in part due to those higher-up at the club.
It is clear moving the away fans to the opposite end of the stadium to our most vociferous sections of support has destroyed the atmosphere at home games and only against Reading did the club finally stopped selling individual match tickets to the upper bowl. On top of this, why have we ceased in attacking the South Stand in the second half?
These are but a few problems with the match day experience at the SoL, and Coleman knows there are many.
Verdict: Decent post-match comments; honest but invigorating for the team.