As the season rumbles on into the final ten matches, there is one thing which has been made woefully obvious over the course of the campaign: our defence is a shambles.
After going down with very little fight at QPR, Sunderland have now conceded 66 goals in 37 matches. That’s the worst defence in the league, in case you were wondering. We have been leaking goals left right and centre, with various defensive combinations being unable to solve the problem.
Amazingly, we’ve played out four 3-3 draws, and astonishingly we held the lead in three of those four. But failing to win any is just the tip of the iceberg, and these matches have been a good indication of how the season has panned out.
It’s fair to say we are currently in the midst of a defensive crisis. Whoever Chris Coleman assigns in the back line has failed to look capable of keeping things tight. There have been countless defensive meltdowns, the most recent exhibit being last Tuesday night against Aston Villa. Just what was going through the minds of Billy Jones and Jason Steele for the visitor’s first goal is unknown, yet this has happened on so many occasions throughout the season.
How many times have we conceded after a period of decent, and sometimes very good, play? It’s countless, and the continued self-destruction has made sure we’ve not wandered far from the Championship relegation zone.
There won’t be too many teams around that have used three goalkeepers by the end of January. Then again, most teams wouldn’t have three almost equally poor keepers all at once, would they? Of course, not many teams are like Sunderland. Steele had arguably his best game in a Sunderland shirt at Millwall, but then how long a week is in football?
Just seven days later he was back to his usual unreliable best, putting an end to any chances of him looking like an actual goalkeeper for two matches in a row.
We’ve had our fair share of defensive injuries this season. Rarely has there been a point where we’ve had a full selection of central defenders fit. It is hard to use this as a genuine excuse for how bad our back four (or five, or three in some cases) has been this season, but when you need to wedge Billy Jones into a centre half position and hope for the best, you know you’re going to struggle.
One of the most demoralising aspects of conceding, apart from the obvious, is to look at our bewildered and lacklustre defenders stood motionless. Once the opposition have wheeled off in celebration, our players look around at each other gormlessly before plodding back to position for the restart.
There is no ownership or leadership, no one takes responsibility.
The lead up to Villa’s opening goal last week felt as though it was in slow-motion, the players didn’t move much faster than once the ball was in the back of the net.
It has become apparent over the season that one of the only players who can sort out the back line is John O’Shea. Like him or not, his experience has helped to patch us up on various occasions. The Irishman has started 23 matches this campaign, and whilst the results may not have reflected it there is still some argument for his continued inclusion purely because he’s the only defender who has a shred of organisational skill.
The sad thing is, the Republic of Ireland international really isn’t cut out for this division, yet we are going to be relying on him going into the dying embers of the season.
It’s unlikely O’Shea’s body will allow him to play every minute from now until the end of the season but it’s hard to see any other members of the back line being able to step up to the plate as the defensive leader we’re desperate for.
Until we get this, we will leak goals whatever league we’re in.
One of the most important factors for Sunderland to survive this season is to simply find a way to plug the holes.
I say simply, but if it was so straightforward it would have been sorted by now and perhaps we’d have secured another season in the Championship already. As the goals have dried up at the other end, our defenders have picked a terrible time to be totally incompetent.
Whatever combination of players we have at the back we need them now, more than ever, to step up to the plate and organise themselves into a vaguely structured set up. Judging from the past two matches, that seems to be nothing but a pipe dream.