When the fixture list was unveiled, if Sunderland fans were told they would have lost only one of their opening six games, the majority would have been more than satisfied with their club’s start. Especially given that Manchester United, Tottenham and Swansea made up the opening home games alongside potentially tough trips to West Brom, Burnley, and QPR.
Contrastingly, if you’d told most Sunderland supporters that after six games they would still be searching for their first win, with none of the frontline strikers scoring a league goal; naturally there would be widespread cause for concern.
Although there is an argument for both optimism and pessimism, there is no need to worry, just yet. Sunderland’s start to the season has been steady, if uninspiring, there have been encouraging displays against Swansea, and Manchester United and even after being outplayed for large parts versus Tottenham, great spirit and persistence was evident as they ground out a point. However, missed opportunities against what have turned out to be poor Burnley and QPR sides, have frustrated large sections of supporters.
The Swansea game encapsulated the start to the season brilliantly, a good result against one of the Premier League’s early pace setters, but still there was an degree of frustration as Sunderland couldn’t win a manage they controlled for large spells. A lack of goals is very worrying; with last season’s saviour Connor Wickham failing to replicate his prolific end to the last campaign. Perhaps, even more worryingly Steven Fletcher, despite a promising pre-season has continued to struggle in front of goal.
However, it would be harsh to solely blame the strikers for Sunderland’s lack of fire power. In Gus Poyet’s favoured passing style of play, it is rare that a forward gets a ball to run on to, or is presented with a clear-cut chance. Injuries have also hampered Poyet’s quest for a settled team. With Emmanuele Giaccherini’s pre-season injury seriously limiting his left hand side options, he was forced to experiment with Wickham on the left, and Fletcher through the middle. This combined with both Sunderland’s first choice strikers picking up knocks in recent weeks, neither striker has been afforded a sustained run of first team football.
The arrivals of Will Buckley and Ricky Alvarez have injected much needed strength in-depth into Sunderland’s wide areas, with the former looking very positive since joining from Brighton and the latter displaying some clever touches when he came on against Swansea; he should be a vital asset to the team once he adapts to the pace of the English game. This means there is now genuine quality on both flanks, and remembering that, on his day, Adam Johnson can be virtually unplayable. Despite splitting opinion amongst fans, his goals and assists stats cannot be disputed.
With the improvement of wide options and the undoubted solidity Lee Cattermole and Jack Rodwell offer in centre midfield, Sunderland are proving a very hard team to beat and if the supply to the forwards improves, and Wickham or Fletcher rediscover past goal scoring form, progress should follow.
The start to the season has been frustrating/annoying/irritating/encouraging/steady/dull (delete as appropriate). But at this stage last season Sunderland were rooted to the bottom of the league with a solitary point and were still a month away from registering their first win. This year, however despite some frustrating displays we still have five points on the board and a win on Saturday would turn the start to the season into a very respectable one. After the madness of the last few years it would be nice to have a season of relative tranquillity and implementation of Poyet’s style of play could represent real progress. But having said that, in typical Sunderland style we’ll probably lose to Stoke at the weekend with a last minute own goal, after missing numerous chances. Then the panic button will be collectively bashed across Wearside.
By Michael Lough