The build up
Naturally, much of the focus in the run up to the game was on Alex Neil’s return to the Stadium of Light. He’d done a superb job for us last season, and the fact we’re still angry about his departure tells you everything you need to know. It’s an unusual situation for us – managers rarely leave us out of their choice – and this was our chance to show him what he’s missing out on.
Of course, we don’t know the full story – the club controlled the narrative around his departure, and Neil’s kept his own counsel, but the fact he said before the game that he’s surprised and disappointed he’s been painted as the villain here suggests there’s an untold aspect to the tale. Will we ever find out? Who knows.
While Alex Neil’s return dominated the build-up to a game that attracted an impressive 43,000-plus crowd, Tony Mowbray’s team selection once again raised eyebrows.
I must admit, I was immediately concerned when I saw his starting XI. Reading about how Stoke play, it was clear they’re at their best when the opposition has the ball and they can press and break at pace – so why we decided to go into the game with effectively a one-man midfield beggared belief.
Dan Neil’s been out of sorts for a little while now, but it was his regular midfield partner Edouard Michut who sat this one out – Mowbray preferring to go with Neil effectively by himself in midfield, and Roberts and Pritchard ahead of him.
In a game in which the opposition was guaranteed to press us and try to catch us on the break, the absence of Luke O’Nien was unfathomable. Since his man-of-the-match midfield performance in our last win, at QPR, O’Nien’s played once at right back and started the other three games on the bench. With us looking so lightweight in midfield, it’s illogical that he’s not been given another chance in the centre of the park.
We also persisted with Joe Gelhardt, who – let’s be honest – has really, really struggled since his arrival. He’s not the sort of player who can lead the line – to be fair to him, he was brought in to play off Ross Stewart – but he’s shown little to suggest he’s worth a place in the team. But striking options aren’t just limited - they’re non-existent, and for all of the criticism Tony Mowbray will rightfully get after this one, the cards he’s been dealt by Kristjaan Speakman have been poor – and Speakman is equally culpable for what happened yesterday.
Yes, you can’t legislate for the injuries to Corry Evans and Ross Stewart, but our inaction to subsequently replace them has effectively written off the rest of the season – and put Tony Mowbray in an impossible position.
The first half
The opening encounters were actually fairly even, and hinted at little of what was to come. We did, in fact, start pretty well – we were on the front foot, which hasn’t always been the case recently, and in what was a highly charged atmosphere we looked to take the game to Stoke.
The opposition, however, soon got into the game and, in what was a scrappy performance, we struggled to keep the ball as well as we can do. Dan Neil was particularly guilty of giving the ball away too easily – but he certainly wasn’t the only one.
Smallbone had a good chance for Stoke, which he put wide, while at the other end Amad had an effort blocked, and Clarke got inside their full back on a couple of occasions but failed to find a teammate with his ball into the box. He did have a penalty shout too as a Stoke defender came across him to block his progress into the box – it would have been soft, but anywhere else on the field that’s obstruction, and a direct free kick.
Of course, as is seemingly customary in our fixtures at the moment, we had a dickhead of a referee. We’ve encountered Homer, sorry Jeremy, Simpson before – it was only a few months ago the crowd were telling him he wasn’t fit to referee after a particularly inept performance at home to Blackpool, during which he failed to play an advantage when we were clean through on goal, and once again he proved he indeed isn’t fit to be a referee.
Failing to book Laurent for chopping down the breaking Patrick Roberts was bad enough; booking Dan Neil for winning the ball deep in our half compounded matters. Putting our only sitting midfielder on a yellow spelled trouble, and Neil’s effectiveness, for what it was, was blunted further as a result.
However, Mr Simpson wasn’t finished there. From our right wing corner, the Stoke keeper Sarkic came out, got nowhere near the ball and clattered Danny Baath and his own player Hoever. Ballard heads the ball back towards goal, Jagielka clears the ball, and we pick up possession. The referee blows the whistle to stop the game to allow Hoever to receive treatment.
To start with, if an outfield player does what Sarkic did, it’s a foul and a penalty - no question at all. Secondly, when Homer blew his whistle, the ball had been cleared by Stoke, and we were about to mount another attack. The rules of the game are quite clear here – the ball is given back to us to restart the game. But not according to Mr Simpson, who gave the ball back to Sarkic to restart the game. We were out of position, and the ball quickly ended up with Hoever, who the referee had quickly waved back on.
Of course, that doesn’t excuse what happened next – we were all over the place as Stoke broke down our right, and Josh Laurent swept the ball home after running from halfway with absolutely no Sunderland player anywhere near him. Our defensive efforts were woeful, here. There was also a call for offside, with a Stoke player blocking Patterson’s view, but it was a good finish, one which separated the teams at halftime.
When the whistle blew, a furious Mowbray approached Homer, who brandished a yellow card immediately at the gaffer before he really had time to get his point across.
The second half
We made two changes at half time - O’Nien coming on for Alese, who’d picked up an injury late in the first half, and Michut coming on to replace Gelhardt to strengthen the midfield. O’Nien should have come on in midfield, but our lack of defensive depth (where’s Joe Anderson, by the way?) meant he was needed in defence.
Gelhardt was, once again, completely anonymous, and he’s really not doing himself any favours. He’s trying to play his natural game, granted – but we need him to play on the shoulder of the last man and stretch the defence. It might not come naturally, but it’s what the team needs, and he should be doing it. We didn’t once try to get into a foot race with the 40-year-old Jagielka, and Gelhardt needs to adapt his game to benefit the team. Whether it’s actually worth our while now giving him game time ahead of our own players is another question all together, but no one’s benefiting from him being in our team at present.
We struggled to get any meaningful shots on goal yesterday, and I’m not sure what we do over the coming weeks to resolve that – I’d be tempted to do something radical and throw O’Nien and Bennette up there to see if they can provide a focal point and run in behind. But what we do know is we can’t do what we tried in the second half yesterday – Amad’s simply not a number 9.
He’s another who’s been off the boil in recent weeks, and while we tried to get him and Pritchard further forward it never looked like working.
From there it was calamitous, with Dan Neil, Anthony Patterson and Danny Batth among those who simply made it far too easy for the opposition. Tyrese Campbell scored a quickfire couple to extinguish any hope we had, and then the ex-mag Dwight Gayle scored another two to complete the humiliation. We made it so easy for them it was embarrassing – and in truth, we got off lightly. We were so inept in the second half it could have been seven or eight – which is hugely concerning.
Stoke were effective, played the game well, and thoroughly deserved their win. We saw first-hand last season how good Alex Neil can be tactically, and he’s done an absolute number on us here.
Our heads went down, we practically downed tools and waited for the full-time whistle to blow. In several games recently, we’ve bemoaned the lack of added time. The two minutes added on yesterday, when in reality it should have been six, seven or eight – seemed an act of mercy. Stoke would likely have scored another one or two in that time.
Alex Neil had shown us exactly what we’ve been missing. Which hurts. But in truth, his presence was a side issue here.
Let’s not gloss over anything – the game was an absolute disaster, and it’s one that, with hindsight, was probably coming after the displays in the past three games.
The past three weeks have raised questions about Tony Mowbray – both tactically and the way he’s vocalising excuses to his players in comments to the media. He’s consistently talking about tiredness, about not having ‘the right tools’, bad refereeing and about the number of games we’re playing.
Yes, the hand dealt to him by Speakman’s been a bad one, and the sporting director must take some of the blame here by leaving us so short. But Mowbray’s got a job to do, and over the past few weeks, he’s not been doing it well enough.
Shipping five at home is quite simply unacceptable. It was our (equal) second-ever heaviest home defeat – a 6-1 loss to Birmingham at Roker in 1958 is the only one in the record books that’s worse. To record our worst home defeat in 65 years on such a big occasion is inexcusable.
We looked so desperately organised yesterday, lacked any hint of bravery and turned in such a poor show, that it brought immediate comparisons to that Bolton game that proved to be the end for Lee Johnson.
There were striking similarities between that performance and the one we dished up yesterday, and Mowbray will naturally have lost a decent amount of confidence and goodwill, both from the stands and the boardroom, after overseeing such a dismal display – and it’ll take a good run from our final 11 games to begin to regain that.
It was so brutal and so pathetically bad that it feels like a watershed moment for us.
Which way it goes is anyone’s guess. With Norwich, Sheffield United, Luton and Burnley to play in the next four games, it could be a tough old month ahead.