Sunderland suffered their heaviest defeat during their time in League One as they were truly embarrassed and humiliated 6-0 by bottom-half side Bolton Wanderers at the University of Bolton Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Black Cats were second-best throughout the 90 minutes, as Bolton showed a far greater desire for the three points: they pressed well, looked much more dangerous and much more impressive within transition.
A switch to a back-four back-fired upon Lee Johnson, as a brace from Dion Charles, and three impressive strikes from Oladapo Afolayan, Kieran Lee and Declan John, and an own goal from January recruit Danny Batth, meant that Sunderland fell to a very heavy defeat – and made if five points from a possible 15 in the opening month of 2022.
It’s a massive blow for Lee Johnson’s side, compounded by the fact both Rotherham and Wigan extended their own advantage upon the Wearsiders.
Lee Johnson included both Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts in his matchday squad for the first time, but both were only available from the bench. The only change from last weekend’s victory over Portsmouth was the inclusion of Carl Winchester instead of Tom Flanagan. It meant a tactical reshape for the Black Cats, with Winchester playing at full back and Lynden Gooch lining up on the left wing. And in the opening stages, Sunderland struggled to adjust and Bolton were in the mood to pounce on their errors.
The home team implemented a high-pressing game, backed on by the electric atmosphere at the University of Bolton Stadium, but the lack of opportunities told the full story of the first 15 minutes, and the first real attempt saw the opening goal.
Over recent weeks, Lee Johnson has spoken about eradicating individual errors, but when Hoffmann stuttered in trying to clear a long ball forward from James Trafford, there was only going to be one outcome: Dion Charles poked the ball over the stranded Sunderland goalkeeper, and Bolton held the advantage.
Yet, the Trotters didn’t stop there. They were ignited by their home crowd, began to dominate, and should have been two, or three-nil up.
Kieran Lee, a doubt for this fixture, somehow missed a sitter as Marlon Fossey’s cut-back was diverted narrowly over the crossbar by the Bolton midfielder.
The Black Cats were struggling to keep in their shape and Ian Evatt’s side were going from strength to strength; Oladapo Afolayan’s ferocious effort was pushed away by Hoffmann as the home side tried to twist the screw.
Sunderland’s attacking play was lethargic and predictable, with the only slightly meaningful effort coming from Elliot Embleton, as his long-range cross-shot was easily saved by Trafford.
And, from that, Bolton profited, as they produced a rapid counter-attack – started and finished by Afolayan – to compound the Black Cats’ first-half misery. The attacker, who had an excellent game, travelled almost three-quarters of the pitch to side-foot home Dion Charles’ cut-back.
Lee Johnson surprisingly didn’t make any changes at half time, but despite presumably being on the receiving end of some harsh words at the interval Sunderland still looked incredibly susceptible to another Bolton attack – and only six minutes into the half, they were carved open for a third time. Gethin Jones’ cross was nodded across the face of goal by Afolayan to Charles, who produced an impressive finish in humiliating circumstances for the Black Cats.
With the game arguably over, Lee Johnson made a double change in the hope of a potential comeback, but those hopes were extinguished in minutes when Bolton increased their advantage to four, it was time to head for the exits for many of the 5,000+ Sunderland supporters.
A swift move built from attractive football was completed with a smart finish from Kieran Lee, and Sunderland’s were going from worse to disastrous.
Yet, the away side rarely pushed the ball into their own final third, and Bolton should have been further ahead, as both Mossey and Charles had efforts blocked by Hoffmann, while Jack Clarke had the away side’s best attempt, Trafford make his only notable save of the contest so stop the on-loan winger’s effort.
Complete control doesn’t do Bolton justice, and the game turned into a complete embarrassment for the Black Cats, with the Trotters’ fifth of the match completely summing up Sunderland’s troubles.
Instead of clearing the ball away from danger, Danny Batth nodded the ball past Thorben Hoffmann after a cross from the left, and at five, Lee Johnson’s side were on course for their heaviest and worst defeat in a long, long, long time.
A sixth goal was probably what Sunderland deserved, and it raises huge questions about where the Black Cats go from here. A cross from the right dropped to former SAFC loanee Declan John, who was in acres of space and was somehow able to loop the ball into the top corner.
For the fifth time this season, Sunderland have lost by three goals or more. For a team with automatic promotion hopes that simply is not good enough.
So, where do Sunderland go from here?
We have to get promoted this season, but Lee Johnson’s side lost every battle all across the field. That is deeply concerning and is not a quality possessed by a promotion team.
All in all, it highlighted Sunderland’s need to strengthen as the transfer window comes to a close – the team is in dire need of a central midfielder who can dictate play and be almost the ‘body’ and ‘infrastructure’ of the side.
The potential loss of Ross Stewart due to injury sometime between now and the end of the season could also be catastrophic for the Black Cats’ hopes, so the need of a striker is also an imperative. The list goes on, but overall Sunderland need new bodies.
However, for now, the Black Cats are on a knife edge: automatic promotion seems like a mile off, and it’s going to be the most pivotal week that the club has had for a long, long time.