Football is a funny old game, often decided by incredibly fine margins. Take for example our 1998 play-off final loss to Charlton, where the difference between Premier League and First Division football was decided by a missed penalty, or the 1985 Milk Cup final where Norwich scored on the back of a botched clearance from David Corner. More often than not, at key moments, all it takes is one small error and your entire destiny can change.
During the current campaign, however, Sunderland have made too many of those small errors, and the end result appears to be that we’ll be playing third tier football next season for only the second time in our long, storied history.
It’s why I find it far too simplistic to just pin our downfall on the pitch this season on any one thing or person. The fact is that momentum is perhaps the greatest asset you can have in football, and without it you can’t just fix something that is broken.
Sunderland were relegated rather spectacularly from the Premier League under David Moyes, and it would be fair to suggest that the only way we could have possibly fixed our problems last summer would have been to follow the path of Newcastle United in having a humongous clear-out, ridding ourselves of everything negative and replacing it whilst utilising an immense amount of disposable cash.
That said, there are still ‘small errors’ that we could have avoided this season. In the main we just haven’t appeared well-drilled enough defensively, and we switch off far too often on set pieces. I don’t have the exact figures to hand, but it feels like the amount of goals that Sunderland have conceded from dead ball situations has been astronomical.
For a club that marketed itself on its working class roots and integrity at the start of the season, we’ve been horrendously short on desire and effort at the worst possible moments and, as a result, we’re set to pay dearly.
Organisational problems have been at the forefront of my mind throughout this season, and whilst a good eighty percent of defending is about mentality and desire, the other twenty percent - preparation on the training pitch - has clearly been lacking also. Chris Coleman is the man, but he’s not blameless, and he himself has admitted he’s not performed up to his own levels of expectation.
I do wonder, therefore, how much of our bad form and poor results might be down to Coleman’s persistence with his favoured system that employs a five-man defence.
When he first arrived back in November we started with a loss away at Aston Villa - a battling performance where we were unlucky to depart Villa Park without any points in tow. Coleman opted to play with four across the back and five across the middle - a system he continued with in the next game, away at Burton Albion, which we managed to win after scoring two late goals.
Then the wheels fell off slightly after a promising start. Having stayed competitive right up until Callum McManaman was recklessly sent off against Reading, a ten-man Sunderland fell to bits and with a game against league leaders Wolves to come, Coleman abandoned his four-man back line in favour of a more conservative and compact 5-4-1 - a system which worked to great effect as we held Nuno Espírito Santo’s side to a goalless draw at the Molineux.
At the time it seemed like we had stumbled across a way to be effective, but looking back now I can’t help but feel as though the effectiveness of our performance that afternoon ultimately led towards our eventual downfall.
We’ve stuck by a five-man system practically throughout Coleman’s time in charge and bar the odd day where the dominoes all fell in our favour, we’ve generally struggled to get going.
Eventually it may prove that with the correct tools at his disposal, Coleman’s preferred system will come good for us. But speaking from my own perspective as a mere fan I can’t help but wonder whether or not his insistence of sticking by it has done more harm than good.
In our last three games, by virtue of injury and suspensions to central defenders, Coleman has been forced to return back to a four-man system, and only a fool would summise that it’s been anything other than a success. Whilst our frailties from set-piece situations still remain, the team look infinitely more confident and capable.
The alteration in system has seen us achieve better individual performances from players that have largely been cast aside. Donald Love and Lynden Gooch have struggled to make the match-day squad throughout this season but having been handed an opportunity to play in a system that suits their abilities they’ve thrived.
I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have been in a relegation battle if we had of changed our system sooner, but I don’t think we’d have been seven points behind Bolton in 21st with just five games remaining. Let’s remember that on the day Simon Grayson was sacked, Bolton were rock bottom of the table with only seven points to their name. Regardless of the litany of issues Sunderland have faced this season, we’ve simply not done enough collectively across the 41 games we’ve played in the Championship so far.
Food for thought, then. Coleman’s handled himself greatly since arriving at Sunderland but he might look back at his persistence with his preferred system as a defining factor in why results really haven’t turned around since he took over the managerial reins.