Focus on resilience
The main reason relegation feels imminent this time round has been largely due to our constant inability to defend. Only three teams have conceded more than us this year and an inability to grind out tough draws or eek out close wins has cost Sunderland dearly. That must change now.
The big question, however, is how does Moyes improve Sunderland defensively when the team have disappointing in that respect all year?
Our players showed an ability to frustrate and restrict Premier League opposition in back to back games against Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace when playing a back five - sadly, that formation appears to have been binned by Moyes.
Since returning to four at the back Sunderland have been comfortably beaten by Manchester City and Everton. The return of Jason Denayer - who was unavailable due to illness and ineligibility in both games - may lead to Moyes returning a third centre back to the Sunderland line up.
As seen with Louis Van Gaal’s Holland at the 2014 World Cup, playing with an extra man in the back can often mask the individual weaknesses of poor defensive players - an important trait given the flaws of Sunderland’s current defenders. The ageing John O’Shea and the limited Billy Jones in particular seem more suited to a system that provides more defensive support.
Whichever system Sunderland use, the first priority for the remaining fixtures has to be to defend better both individually and collectively.
Last season conceding one goal or fewer in seven of our last eleven games was integral to our safety. Crucial draws and ability to stay in matches and compete every week was the key to Sam Allardyce keeping Sunderland up.
Sunderland’s incredible five game salvo to stay up under Gus Poyet also included three clean sheets alongside restricting Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea to a solitary goal at Stamford Bridge.
Support Jermain Defoe
Jermain Defoe's heroics have been discussed ad nauseam, but now is the time to share the load. Defoe has been responsible for just under 60% of Sunderland’s Premier League goals, with the now departed Patrick Van Aanholt and injured Victor Anichebe next in Sunderland’s goal scoring ranks.
Last season Defoe was responsible for a much more reasonable 30% of our goals, with Lamine Kone, Fabio Borini and Van Aanholt all netting at crucial times. He averaged similar totals after his January arrival in the 2015 season scoring four of 14 league goals after his swap deal with Jose Altidore.
The main culprits this term have been Fabio Borini and Adnan Januzaj - first team regulars in creative positions - and they’ve both scored just once all season. That is clearly not good enough. Borini has been rash, wasteful and anxious in front of goal, missing in big moments against Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham all at times when Sunderland were level in games. Whilst Januzaj spends too long on the periphery of matches, and rarely finds himself in goal scoring positions.
An obvious solution would be to return out of favour Wahbi Khazri to the starting line-up. The Tunisian international scored twice in last year’s campaign but more crucially adds a set piece threat. In escaping relegation last year Sunderland scored 15 goals from dead ball situations. This year they’ve managed one. Khazri’s deliveries from corners and free kicks contributed to a memorable win against Manchester United and opened the scoring in a Tyne-Wear derby.
Stick together as a team
One of the most frustrating elements of watching Sunderland this season has been the lack of joy the team ostensibly have playing with one another. Telegraph journalist Jonathan Liew once described the relegated Queens Park Rangers side of two years ago stating, “The funny thing about watching QPR is how every single one of them thinks they’re the genius surrounded by morons”. At times this has felt true of Sunderland.
The readiness in which this season’s Sunderland have turned on one another feels greater than previous years. It normally takes one, two misplaced passes for the team’s star, Jermain Defoe, to lose patience with his teammates. Even new man Darron Gibson was calling out teammates on the pitch for a lack of movement in his third appearance.
Mercurial talent Adnan Januzaj has been berated on several occasions, often beyond the point of an argument typical between teammates, whilst a lack of leadership and encouragement has hurt the team’s less experienced players. Capitulations against Swansea, Burnley and Stoke has seen young players like Didier Ndong and Jason Denayer struggle without calming influences elsewhere in team to help coach them through the game.
Sunderland must show a greater togetherness starting with Saturday’s clash with Burnley. This must start with senior players Defoe, O’Shea and Larsson. The latter two have to do more to justify their starting spots. If Sunderland are to stay up, senior players have to do more to encourage and coax the team through potentially high pressure and occasionally toxic atmospheres.
If Sunderland play as a team, and show greater decisiveness in both penalty areas maybe just maybe they can pull of another miracle.