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OK, so the situation on Wearside isn’t quite a case of ‘Hello darkness, my old friend’, a refrain that should only be applied to years gone by at Sunderland, but as Tony Mowbray and his under-pressure players try and recover from what’s been a thoroughly dreadful week’s worth of football, there’s little doubt that we’re woefully short of both form and confidence.
With the head coach looking here, there and everywhere for answers and his players struggling to put it together over ninety minutes, we’re now at the start of a crunch week in the context of our season.
After being tripped up by Plymouth and sucker-punched by Huddersfield, we were able to nab a point from our trip to The Den on Saturday, but one point from nine games that were certainly winnable is, by any standard, unacceptable, and the nature of the performances has also led to alarm in some quarters.
It’s not as if things are getting any easier, either, as next up it’s the small matter of the visit of Carlos Corberan’s rejuvenated West Bromwich Albion, followed by what’ll be a very high-stakes home game against Leeds United, now looking increasingly like the team we thought they’d become under Daniel Farke.
On the other hand, it’s important to highlight that our league table position remains reasonably encouraging- three points off the playoffs and right in the middle of a group of teams all vying to keep the pressure on those above them, so the picture isn’t entirely negative.
Nevertheless, it’s been a bad week and at times like this, recrimination comes easily and blame is affixed to whoever happens to be within range.
Mowbray, Kristjaan Speakman, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, ‘the model’, a ‘lack of ambition’, the sale of Ross Stewart, Danny Batth’s departure, the recruitment of four untested strikers, Luke O’Nien’s defensive abilities, and so on.
Some of it is rational and some of it is over the top, but it’s all borne out of a desperate desire to see our club fulfill its potential and regain a coveted place at English football’s top table.
On the other hand, had we taken seven points from the last nine, you just know that none of the above would’ve been used as proof that things were going badly wrong, so it’s fairly typical in that regard.
On the pitch, and in the wake of a dreadful performance against the Terriers in midweek, it felt as though we were sailing dangerously close to ‘end of days’ stuff when it came to the security of Mowbray’s position during Saturday’s brutal clash with Millwall.
From Kevin Nisbet ghosting in to sidefoot the hosts into the lead to Mason Burstow being left isolated up front and the predictable mass of substitutions midway through the second half, the head coach was up against it and although Jack Clarke salvaged a draw from the penalty spot, it was hardly the outcome that Mowbray would’ve wanted.
At the moment, our well-recognised spark has vanished and the verve with which we’ve often played has been replaced with hesitancy and disjointed play.
Passes are going sideways rather than forwards with purpose. Individual errors and collective failings are resulting in soft goals being conceded, and an overreliance on Clarke to produce something from nothing has turned us into a one-dimensional attacking unit.
In addition, our midfield is porous and not controlling things to the standard that’s needed, and none of our four strikers are presenting opposing defences with genuine problems. Indeed, it was hard not to feel sorry for Burstow on Saturday, as he seemed to be playing within his own invisible exclusion zone at times.
It’s easy to pin all of the blame for the downturn in form on Mowbray and granted, some of his recent selections, tactics and interviews, particularly regarding Hemir, have been confusing.
However, these players have already shown that they’re capable of delivering when it matters. They’re not plodders or shirkers. They’re talented footballers who are currently in a rut and in need of a boost.
Could that come in the shape of the televised game against the Baggies? Will the Lads emerge from the tunnel hellbent on putting things right? They owe that to Mowbray, the fans, and themselves at the very least.
It’s all well and good hammering Southampton when the sun is shining and spirits are high, but when the cold bites and skill often plays second fiddle to graft, you have to adjust as needed. That’s what successful teams do, and every great Sunderland side has had it in ample supply.
At the moment, our situation is not entirely dissimilar to that which we found ourselves in during the 2006/2007 season. Inconsistent form marked by some poor defeats, but a team of honest players who are determined to do right by the supporters.
It was unity that propelled us to promotion in 2022. It was unity that helped us to achieve a sixth-place finish in 2022/2023, and it’ll be that same quality that’s needed if we’re to drag ourselves out of this poor run of form and into calmer waters.
We can do it, and with no outward indications that Mowbray’s position is under threat, there needs to be a relentless focus on putting things right as we build up to the next double-header of games.