During 2022/2023, we’ve seen Sunderland rise to the occasion and deliver performances and results that have often taken us by surprise. However, after a rocky week, the Lads are facing an altogether different challenge as the spectre of Stoke City and a Wearside reunion with Alex Neil looms large.
Had we been approaching our next fixture in winning form with our confidence soaring and the goals flowing, the dynamic might’ve been one of sheer belief that the Potters could be dispatched fairly routinely and that our playoff push would continue.
After a recent return of one point from nine, however, it’s the first time this season where tricky questions are being asked. Is it unexpected? Maybe not, but conceding a late penalty against Bristol City has triggered a wobble and optimism is now tinged with concern about the games to come.
Many of the talking points aren’t new: Ross Stewart’s absence, no talisman to replace him, Joe Gelhardt being forced to play in a role to which he probably isn’t suited, and so on. Well-worn arguments, yes, but it doesn’t change the reality- this is the squad we have and they need to find the answers.
Perhaps it's a slightly perverse way of looking at it, but for me, Saturday’s visit of Stoke is now a slightly more exciting prospect that it might’ve been had we not come unstuck against Rotherham and Coventry.
That’s not to say that it’s make or break, and any talk of the ‘season being over’ is ridiculously premature, but there’s certainly going to be more riding on the game and it’s sure to take place in a white-hot atmosphere.
With that in mind, the week’s break in between games is crucial.
The Lads have been showing telltale signs of fatigue recently, and after two tough away games, it’s obvious that we’ve hit a wall. Our usually potent attacking game isn’t quite clicking, the midfield looks worryingly porous, and we’re definitely looking shakier at the back, too.
The gap between games should also serve as a chance for everyone, players and coaches alike, to regain some clarity of thought, because muddled thinking has cost us recently.
Tony Mowbray’s admirable loyalty to his young players came back to bite him on Saturday, as a visibly out-of-sorts Amad barely contributed (a beautiful late goal notwithstanding) and the skillful but fragile midfield duo of Dan Neil and Edouard Michut were given a workout in a game that was surely perfectly set up for Pierre Ekwah.
It’s also somewhat bemusing that Luke O’Nien hasn’t featured as much as he perhaps should’ve recently - particularly as it’s become obvious that we’re running on fumes in midfield.
OK, it might be a stretch to claim that Mowbray lacks trust in O’Nien after his red card against Swansea, surely the steel and energy that he brings would've given us some added zeal and he would’ve doubtless relished the challenge of away games against physical opponents.
So, how should we gear ourselves up for Saturday at the Stadium of Light?
Frankly, Mowbray’s team talk should write itself and there should be a burning desire to get out there and do the business.
If the thought of showing Alex Neil exactly what he left behind isn’t motivation enough for these players, the way in which he walked out on the squad certainly should be. In addition, the form of players that he never really fancied early in the season (chiefly Patrick Roberts) should serve as an added incentive.
When it became clear that Neil was leaving, the players turned in a performance of sheer defiance, albeit in defeat against Norwich while he took in Stoke’s game against Blackburn.
A similar performance this weekend would be most welcome, and with both teams in poor form, something has to give.
The idea that we will simply ghost along until May with nothing to play for doesn’t really stand up, and if anything, the players should be hellbent on proving that one bad week won’t define the campaign.
Yes, they’re under pressure, but that’s life at this club. Hopefully they can come out fighting and get back on course with a much-needed three points this coming Saturday.