What a difference a year makes
They say that comparison is the thief of joy, and it certainly doesn’t improve my post-match mood to think that one year ago, an Amad-inspired Sunderland were putting James McClean and company to the sword in a 4-1 victory over Wigan.
In some ways, we’ve become a more balanced side since the end of last year, as Trai Hume, Jack Clarke and Dan Neil have gone from strength to strength, and Jobe Bellingham has been a notable addition in midfield.
This year also saw significant wins away to West Bromwich Albion and Blackburn Rovers, as well as wonderful days at the Stadium of Light against Middlesbrough and Luton. It certainly hasn’t been a bad year by recent standards and for me, only 2022 rivals it since the Roy Keane years.
That said, the nature of our performance against Rotherham highlighted that this side is miles off where it can, should and has been over the last year or so.
As I’ll go on to discuss, we seem to be really one-dimensional at the moment, hiding behind one player to make things happen rather than making full use of the range of talent we know this squad possesses.
Suffice it to say, it feels like we’ve almost wasted a year going sideways when we were so well-placed to push on with a core of players younger and more talented than we’ve had in ages.
None of this can be laid at one person’s door, but it feels like January could be a defining month for the club’s ownership, as after a wretched December on and off the pitch, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, Kristjaan Speakman and company risk throwing away the goodwill built up over the course of the last year.
Some promising signings, combined with Michael Beale starting to really make a mark, and everything could be back to where we were at the end of the 2022/2023 season. In their absence, however, we could be quickly looking over our shoulders and sitting out the rest of a disappointing second season in the Championship with little to shout about.
Another sluggish first half
Sunderland served up a first half on Friday night which was very much in keeping with our recent stuttering form.
Beale, like Tony Mowbray and Mike Dodds before him, picked a starting eleven with no real striker to speak of. While this can’t fully be blamed for a flat first half on Friday, surely it didn’t help.
Just like against Bristol City and at home to Coventry, pedestrian build-up play, a lack of quality in the final third and an overly casual approach when passing it around at the back caused us more problems than our supposedly inferior opposition.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this was compounded by the lack of a focal point up front.
It seems like Beale is slowly starting to encourage the team to be more direct at times, trying to turn and stretch defences more dynamically than we previously have, including with Jack Clarke getting to the byline more often rather than always cutting inside, however effective this can be.
However, without an actual striker, this plan seemed to fall flat and a lack of clarity led to some very stodgy play from us at times, once again falling back on the ‘give it to Clarke’ gambit which eventually paid dividends against Hull City on Boxing Day but caused Rotherham few problems this time around.
Despite Rotherham showing almost no intent to get at us in the opening period of the game, we went in at half time lucky to be on level terms having failed to record a single shot on target against the league’s leakiest defence.
In the end, we should’ve been behind and only a tremendous series of saves from Anthony Patterson kept the score at 0-0 at the break.
A lack of urgency early on
Far from saying that we actually played well after conceding, at least we introduced some of the urgency that was lacking in the first half once Sam Clucas scored a humdinger of a volley to put the Millers ahead early in the second half.
As with my complaints about our first half performance, this is nothing new and there wasn’t much we could’ve done about Clucas’ goal, even if leaving him unmarked on the edge of our box was troubling in itself.
Nevertheless, the fact that we seem to keep easing our way through games against opponents who aim to cancel us out until they almost inevitably capitalise on slack play from ourselves is really disappointing. I think if we brought that intensity from the off, we’d pick up a lot more points than we are at the moment.
Once we attempt to do so at this point in games, the opposition have the confidence and tenacity that comes with having a lead to defend, which makes our task all the more difficult.
That was certainly the case on Friday, and it was worrying to see Rotherham continue to look the more dangerous team on the counter until our equaliser, as we continued to rely on long-range strikes and passing it to Clarke at every single opportunity.
Which brings me to…
We’re a one man team
I almost feel sorry for Clarke at this point.
He’s not the only good player in our side but he’s the one who’s currently being given an outsized share of responsibility for digging us out of holes of our own making.
At the moment, pretty much every time we need to make something happen in a game, it’s Clarke, Clarke and Clarke again on whom we rely on to deliver. To his credit, he does provide us with a bit of creative spark which is often sorely lacking.
Mercifully, this happened again last night, even if it involved a huge slice of luck, but at some point we have to reconcile with it being totally unsustainable.
I’ve pondered over the past few months whether we’d be better off selling Clarke and signing a striker who’s worth their salt.
This is partly a coping strategy for when he inevitably leaves the club, although I really hope that isn’t in January, because we might as well give up and go home until August if that’s the case. I also think that it points to how dysfunctional and unbalanced some of our attacking play has been this season.
By the end of last night’s game, it was genuinely laughable to see how predictable our play was.
Every single time we had the ball in their half, our players couldn’t be keener to offload it to our star man, who then had little option but to take the ball and run at Rotherham, ultimately to little effect although not for want of trying.
The bottom line is this: in 2024, whether or not Clarke remains a Sunderland player, Beale and Speakman must make it their resolution to find a way for the Lads to play a style of football that doesn’t just depend on passing the ball to one precociously talented winger.