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Sunderland v Newcastle United - Emirates FA Cup Third Round

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Possession without purpose

“I am not yet ‘Beale out’ but neither am I ‘Beale in’. But there is a feeling that his opportunity here is very much time-limited,” writes Mike Stubbs.

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Driving back to my adopted home in Yorkshire after the defeat to Hull was a dispiriting experience. Not since Son No.2 and I left Bolton’s ground early, with us already 4-0 down, have I felt quite so deflated in recent years about the club I have followed all my life.

My grandparents did their courting at Roker Park in the years before WWII, Jimmy Montgomery was the idol who inspired me to become a goalkeeper, and it was under the halcyon days of Niall Quinn’s chairmanship that I inducted my own two sons into (or inflicted on them, depending on your viewpoint) the family that is Sunderland AFC.

Together, we have endured multiple great escapes, beach balls, and Korean strikers. We were in prime position when Defoe’s strike hit the back of the net against a certain opponent from a bit further North. We were also sat in the same place in the Family Stand on the day Darren Bent’s goal for Burton relegated us.

But despite the low points of Jack 1-1 Ross, Parky ball, and Lee Johnson’s indecipherable explanations of POMOs, following our team around the footballing high spots of Walsall, Milton Keynes, Scunthorpe, Accrington (too many times), and the like, wasn’t an entirely unenjoyable experience. (Although the walk through Bletchley to get to MK Dons was a post-apocalyptic scene I would rather not repeat).

Eventually, we watched the club begin to recover and rise, and making the playoffs last season gave us optimism that SAFC was heading back on track.

But something has changed this season, something that wasn’t immediately apparent in the early results, as we wiped the floor with Southampton, for example.

Sunderland v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Somewhere along the way, our young, exciting team has become muted, constrained in a way that they had not been previously. The team that scored ‘that goal’ against Reading seems to have lost its spark and creativity.

The transition from being the newly promoted surprise package to an established Championship side was never going to be easy. On that journey, the mindset of the squad seems to have altered. The swashbuckling approach that took us to the brink of promotion has been replaced by a mentality that appears to be driven by an overriding fear of losing possession.

It would be convenient (for some) to lay this recent change at the door of the new Coach. But the inconvenient truth is that it was what led to the departure of his predecessor.

The games that preceded Tony Mowbray’s departure were becoming increasingly painful to view. You could set your watch by TM’s substitutions at 60 minutes, irrespective of the state of the game.

The creativity that had taken us to the Playoffs was replaced by a style of football that was so possession-focused, that anyone watching would think points were awarded for the amount of time each team had the ball, rather than the end product.

Our squad is blessed with some wonderfully talented young players, yet they are playing with what appears to be a fear that surrendering possession is a worse crime than trying to be creative.

Time and time again, I have watched opportunities to be progressive spurned, in favour of a turn back towards our own defence - it appears that this squad is being coached in such a way that the only option is the safe option.

Of course, none of my inane ramblings would matter if this approach was producing results on the pitch. But it isn’t.

Sunderland v Luton Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Despite the result on Friday, there were signs that Beale has at least recognized some issues - Dan Neil was deployed in a far more advanced position than he has been for most of the season. His link-up play with Hume and Clarke produced some promising situations. It is a position that suits his skill set.

Set against that, the persistence with Jobe is worrying - the club has made a virtue of the carefully structured development plan it has for Chris Rigg yet Jobe is treated as a senior pro?

But the real downside was the inability to structure any threat from the right wing. Jenson Seelt is a composed and skilful young defender - but he will never offer an overlapping presence as a right back. Part of that lies with his lack of pace, but mostly it was due to the absence of anyone in front of him to overlap.

The lack of progressive play from our right flank allowed Hull to double and triple up on Jack Clarke. Part of Clarke’s value to the side is his ability to occupy more than one defender - but that only helps if you have other players ready to take advantage of the space his presence creates.

The jury is very definitely out on Michael Beale - if he is the outstanding Coach we have been promised, he will find a way to allow our talented young players to fully express themselves.

I am not yet ‘Beale out’ but neither am I ‘Beale in’. But there is a feeling that his opportunity here is very much time-limited.

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