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OPINION: The brutal truth about Chris Coleman’s Sunderland reign so far; is he under-performing?

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Don your tin hats - Jimmy Lowson is here to deliver some harsh truths! Just how much blame does Chris Coleman deserve in this nightmare, and how do we move on from here?

Sunderland v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images,

There are certain statements that continue to be presented as fact when discussing Sunderland and Chris Coleman on Twitter - stuff along the lines of “Chris Coleman gets it” or “Chris Coleman is without doubt the right man to take Sunderland forward”.

The big question I am wrestling with, however, is why do people believe this?

What has Coleman been doing whilst overseeing Sunderland’s sleepwalk towards a second successive relegation to earn such positive accolades?

This is not to suggest the man should be the latest in a long line of Sunderland managers to be dismissed. But rather, the noise and excitement that still surrounds him seems to overrate and misrepresent his abilities as a manager.

Queens Park Rangers v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Deserving of so much praise?
Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images

Sunderland’s points per game have gone up marginally since the arrival of the ex-Wales boss. Having managed a mere 0.66 points per game under Simon Grayson, our total has creeped up to 0.77 points per game under Coleman.

Even Sunderland’s slight improvement under his stewardship comes with a caveat.

Of the 18 points Sunderland have picked up during Coleman’s divisive start to life on Wearside, 11 were delivered in his first eight games, suggesting the Welshman benefitted from the ‘new manager bounce’ we’ve seen several times during Ellis Short’s tenure. Even the grossly incompetent Paolo Di Canio managed to fluke a string of results together at the start of his time at Sunderland.

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Sunderland’s problems clearly go well beyond who occupies the manager’s seat - that much is evident having lost games regularly in the previous four and a half years prior to Coleman’s arrival.

A losing culture, a lack of resilience and non-existent self-belief has plagued performances at The Stadium of Light since Martin O’Neill’s sacking.

Players crumbling under pressure, surrendering early in games and looking defeated before the final whistle has happened several times under Coleman’s stewardship - the three most obvious examples being the home games against Ipswich, Reading and Aston Villa.

Yet, we’ve seen similarly weak mental performances under almost every previous first team boss in the Ellis Short era.

Gus Poyet most painfully oversaw our 8-0 collapse against Southampton, the Lads surrendered meekly in a 3-0 loss to West Brom to get rid of Di Canio. Dick Advocaat gave up on the squad before they could produce a signature depressing loss, whilst Burnley and Swansea were among the clubs to take advantage of our weak mentality during David Moyes’ reign of terror.

Sunderland v West Ham United - Premier League
It was good for a while under Dick.
Photo by Steve Welsh/Getty Images

Coleman is clearly fighting an uphill battle to change this Sunderland’s culture.

He’s tasked with re-motivating a group of players at a club that has lost its direction and purpose under the current regime - yet what changes he has made since he’s been here have failed, and have arguably had a damaging impact on our fight for survival.

The clearest change we’ve seen from the 47-year-old is the switch to a three man defence - a system similar to the one that served him so well during his career-changing spell with the Wales national team. What remains to be seen is whether the back three has been used to improve the team or has been implemented out of vanity and stubbornness.

The obvious logic to using a back three was to shore-up a leaky defence that was joint worst in terms of goals conceded when Coleman was first appointed. Playing three bad centre backs in the hope the extra defensive cover would mask the mistakes of sub-standard players is nothing new. The tactic was a major reason the overachieving Dutch national team finished third at the 2014 World Cup.

Here, though, it has been a disaster. Sunderland now rank dead last in goals conceded, having split those honours with Burton Albion when Coleman was appointed. Sunderland sat 15th in goals scored at the time of Coleman’s appointment - now, the Lads have dropped to 20th in that category.

Sunderland v Reading - Sky Bet Championship
Could Coleman’s system have worked with this man?
Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images,

Other factors, such as the loss of Lewis Grabban, have seen Sunderland’s attack grind to a halt. Grabban’s departure saw Sunderland lose an extremely gifted striker at Championship level who was instantly coveted by virtually every promotion chasing side. On top of that, the Mackems averaged two league goals per game when Duncan Watmore was in the side - a player who, due to injury, Coleman won’t be able to utilise this season.

With Watmore out for the foreseeable future and Grabban firing elsewhere, Sunderland’s two most high profile attackers are undoubtedly Aiden McGeady and Callum McManaman - a perennial Republic of Ireland international with vast Champions League experience and a man who was man of the match in the FA Cup Final when he was 22-year old.

McGeady enjoyed a late career resurgence at Preston North End under Grayson’s tutelage last year, managing eight goals and ten assists from just 32 starts in a team that was otherwise functional and conservative. For all his lack of defensive effort and occasional wastefulness, the ex-Everton man was on track for a similar season prior to Coleman’s arrival. In twelve appearances McGeady scored four and set up a further three goals.

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Since being relegated to the bench and forced to play in a formation that restricts his old-school wing-play, the 31-year-old has only scored twice since Grayson’s dismissal and has produced just one assist under Coleman.

When running through a list of regular starters since Sunderland adopted the three at the back formation in December it’s hard to think of many players who have benefited from playing the system.

Certainly John O’Shea has, with the thinking behind re-integrating him back into the team being clear - add an experienced old head to an inexperienced team in a system where his lack of pace cannot be exposed.

Sunderland v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images,

Yet, playing O’Shea has backfired spectacularly.

We are talking about a physically diminished 36-year-old who offers little resistance and has played miserably in the past month. This man who is supposed to be a calming influence has never really shown the leadership and mental fortitude Sunderland require. He’s been at the heart of Sunderland’s defence for a majority of our most humiliating defeats in an awful period in the club’s history.

The only other player who looks more comfortable in Coleman’s favoured system is Brian Oviedo. The Costa Rica international has improved as a wing-back, where he is exposed in one on one situations less often. When defending a manager’s chosen system, should getting more out of an injury prone left back really be one of the formation’s strong points?

Even more maddeningly this surprise player of the season candidate was ridiculously dropped by our gaffer for tactical reasons in last month’s defeat to Brentford.

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To focus solely on the back three and how big an impact it’s had on our season wouldn’t be fair to Coleman. He inherited an injury prone squad of players - who, barring a miraculous win streak towards the end of the 2014 season and the second half of Sam Allardyce’s tenure, have become accustomed to losing. Unfortunately, losing has become the norm for Sunderland and Coleman was forced to change this culture with no real money to buy the quality of players required to do so.

The moving corpse of Lee Cattermole continues to stink in the Sunderland midfield because we have no other senior central midfielders who can stay fit.

Our gaffer saw one of the league’s best strikers replaced with a player who has never scored with any regularity in men’s football. A lack of spending power forced the Black Cats into the loan market again, and whilst the three loanees that have regularly turned out under Coleman have all shown flashes of ability, the atmosphere and pressure of playing for Sunderland AFC has chewed them up and spat them out.

All three of them have looked lost and despondent at times, which is to be expected considering they are trying to find their way in men’s football.

Being Sunderland manager in 2018 means fighting against a tide of awful recent history, without the resources or capacity to create change. This club isn’t out of jail yet and is still paying for the mistakes of previous regimes and will do so - until the likes Jack Rodwell and Lamine Kone are condemned to the past.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

One enjoyable aspect of Coleman’s management has been his willingness to trust youngsters. Joel Asoro has been a rare bright spark in 2018, and Coleman’s faith in Josh Maja to win us the game against Fulham capped our best performance of his reign perfectly.

Another element of Coleman’s management that contrasts well with his predecessor is his willingness to take chances within a game, not only changing personnel, but systems when the moment calls for it.

The Maja change at Fulham was one example, the remarkable fight back against Bristol City was only possible because our manager was willing to make positive changes, rather than give up and hope the opposition didn’t add to our embarrassment.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

However even Coleman’s willingness to change things and impact games has hurt us. Whether it was removing Marc Wilson at half-time against Cardiff - a player picked in part to deal with Neil Warnock’s side’s set-piece prowess, only to concede instantly after the re-start from a set-piece and proceeded to capitulate - or when he switched to a 4-4-2 at half-time against Barnsley to try and seal a crucial win, backfiring when they scored after half-time before dominating the remainder of the game.

Coleman’s instinct to gamble within games is one of his most admirable traits, even if it hasn’t always paid off on Wearside, but worryingly the Welshman appears to have lost his bottle at the most crucial point of the season.

After Jason Steele’s ridiculous red card against Queens Park Rangers, Coleman removed Sunderland’s most dangerous player, Joel Asoro. If it was January when Coleman was still in his all so brief honeymoon period, would he have removed the pace and trickery of Asoro over an ineffective Aiden McGeady? Or might he have removed the more limited George Honeyman instead? It’s impossible to know for sure, but the Welshman - much like the playing squad - seems to be doubting his own ability.

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Coleman threw Lewis Grabban and Didier Ndong under the bus in January when both were angling for moves away from the club, stressing the importance of having players who want to play for Sunderland turning out on a Saturday. Yet he has indulged Lamine Kone, continuing to pick the Ivory Coast international, even after the 29-year-old stopped trying during a recent draw with Millwall. Tyias Browning maintained his place in the team after his shocking, half-arsed showing against Bristol City.

Sunderland’s effort and ability to deal with adversity is just as pathetic now as it was under Grayson, the levels of commitment Coleman preached in his first two months at the club haven’t been put into action.

The difficulty with assessing Chris Coleman is that managing Sunderland is arguably more difficult than any other job within the Football League. This club is reaching the lowest point of its entire history and nobody is sure if we have seen the nadir yet. For that reason Coleman deserves our time and patience because changing manager again, gets us no closer to solving our problems.

Nonetheless, Coleman has been a disappointment and has contributed to Sunderland’s downfall this year. We need him to improve and reassess how to get the most out of this group, because quite simply our future depends on it.

Disclaimer - please note that these are the thoughts and opinions of one person - as with every Roker Report article you read, not all views are fully representative of the entire writing staff.