This week’s Durham Times column, by Craig Clark, looks at the parts played by Dick Advocaat and Lee Congerton in producing Sunderland’s latest mess of a squad.
Dick Advocaat was scathing of Sunderland’s squad and chances of survival when he departed the club earlier this season and it’s easy to see why. Whilst there is some talent available to his successor Sam Allardyce, the squad is imbalanced and there are question marks over the temperament and commitment of too many of the players available to him.
Advocaat must take some of the blame the state of the squad he left behind. Whilst Lee Congerton was ultimately responsible for transfers, it’s easy to see the influence of Advocaat over the signings of Jeremain Lens and Ola Toivonen, both of whom have struggled with the rigours of Premier League football.
Congerton has paid the price for his part in the type of dire recruitment that leaves a club battling relegation season after season and few would argue with the club’s decision to give him the push. Whether Advocaat, or before him Gus Poyet, wanted a player or not, Congerton was ultimately responsible for deciding whether they were good value. £8m – potentially rising to £13 – for a 28 year old plying their trade in Ukraine now looks complete folly.
Toivonen meanwhile represents less of a risk as a loan player, but his use to the squad is pretty much negligible at this point. Meanwhile, Congerton has also left Allardyce with defensive options that include just four centre backs – which might as well be three, given the reluctance of anyone to use Wes Brown – three right backs and just one left back.
The frailty of that defence has come into sharp focus of late, with the loss of midfield enforcers Lee Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson. Not only has Allardyce been forced to play three central defenders to cover for the lack of ability and quality at the back, his side’s best performances arrived with three committed, defensively robust central midfielders grafting in front them. As soon as Larsson and Cattermole picked up injuries, Sunderland began to leak goals. It’s no coincidence.
The back three – or five, depending on how you look at it – also allowed Allardyce to employ a front two of Jermain Defoe and Steven Fletcher. With defensive injuries mounting, a reversion to four defenders is likely to mean just one out and out striker flanked by Fabio Borini, Duncan Watmore, Adam Johnson, Defoe or even Danny Graham, if the Manchester City game is a barometer of things to come. This system fails to get the best out of either Defoe or Fletcher as a central striker, but to play 4-4-2 with the way this team bleeds goals would be nothing less than suicidal.
January is inching ever closer and Allardyce has rightly earmarked defensive reinforcements as an essential requirement to aid Sunderland’s bid to beat the drop. Numbers are necessary, but just as important is the addition of quality. Assuming new bodies do arrive, it’ll be interesting to see if he reverts back to a back three and front two; it’s looked our most effective way of winning games thus far.
Regardless of what happens, Allardyce is relatively blameless in all of this. Like his predecessors, he’s been forced to rely on oft maligned players who have dug us out of this mess time and time again. New recruits meanwhile have arrived, decreased the quality of the squad and failed to show the levels of energy required to compete in this league. That’s not to say those who’ve been around longer are perfect, but it will be the likes of Cattermole and Larsson who save us – if anyone does – rather than Lens and Toivonen.