Crystal Palace away and Manchester United at home. Those two games account for a third of our wins this season. They’re also the only two games we’ve won by one goal. For a team in the relegation places, you’d be forgiven for thinking that most of our games have hinged on the odd goal but, for the most part, that hasn’t been the case. Our wins over Stoke and Newcastle were aided by opposition red cards, but the victories against Swansea and Aston Villa showed something different. We reacted to the opposition pegging us back by outscoring them and if clean sheet’s are going to continue to elude us, that’s something we have to rediscover.
Now, I don’t want this to be made out to be a piece slating our attacking players. If it wasn’t for Jermain Defoe’s goals, we wouldn’t still have our fate in our own hands. However, there seems to be a theme developing of us not killing teams off when we have the chance and letting our grip on the game slip. Look no further from our game against Newcastle on Sunday, as we deservedly led at half time but there was certainly a feeling that it could have been by more than one goal. As the game wore on, we created less chances and Newcastle’s belief grew until they eventually got the equaliser. Going off his post match comments and his gestures on the touchline, this didn’t seem to be what Sam Allardyce wanted. The manager wanted us to continue to control the game further up the pitch and try to get that second goal, rather than invite Newcastle pressure. “In the second half, I don’t know why we sat in and let Newcastle come at us. Maybe that was the size of the game, but in the end we haven’t done that and it’s two points dropped.” bemoaned a disappointed Sam.
Let’s go back to November, when Allardyce hadn’t long been in the Sunderland dugout. Away at Everton, the lads managed to come from two goals down to level the scores at 2-2. Tragically though, Everton exploited Sunderland’s gung-ho attitude to try and push further forward and ran out 6-2 winners. Post match, Big Sam spoke of his disbelief as to why his players didn’t sit deeper and try to protect the 2-2 scoreline. “When we scored the second, we decided to go attack, attack, attack, and try to get the third and when we didn’t get it, within seven minutes we had tossed the game away” said the gaffer, quite a different sentiment to his comments after the draw at St James Park.
If nothing else, there was still a huge attacking belief in the team during the trip to Goodison Park, as the players realised they were playing against an Everton side with a poor defence. So where has that belief gone? Why can’t the players have the same mentality against the likes of Newcastle and Crystal Palace? Granted, only four players who started in that Everton game started on Sunday (Yedlin, van Aanholt, M’Vila and Defoe) but wouldn’t most of us say that the squad is better now than it was four months ago? With Jermain Defoe’s goals adding up, the addition of Wahbi Khazri and Fabio Borini hitting form, the players are far more entitled to think they can keep pushing on for goals now.
You certainly can’t imagine us conceding four goals in one half now if, either. Especially with the added steel Lamine Kone has given us in defence and additional protection given by Jan Kirchhoff in the middle of the pitch. I just can’t help but wonder if we got a two goal lead, we’d see less anxiety from the team and they’d feel like they could continue to control the game. I’m not expecting us to dominate every opponent, not at all, but I think the clean sheet that Sam Allardyce dreams of may be more likely to come in a romping victory rather than in a game we snatch an early lead and try to sit on it. Given his recent frustrations and comments after the Newcastle game such as “We’re going down to the wire to stay safe now. We’re in a position of must win, draws are not good enough and we need to win four of the last eight” and “We are a team that has to score twice to win. Sadly we didn’t get the second goal and we conceded late on again,” I wonder if he thinks the same too.
If you look at the way we have played in our last six games, there seems to have been something of a “shoot on sight” policy. At times, it’s not pretty, as it leads to a few pot shots from distance but it can earn you a scrappy goal such as Dame N’Doye’s deflected effort against Crystal Palace. In our last six games we’ve averaged 14.33 shots per game, compared to 9.83 in Dick Advocaat’s last 6 games in charge. We all know how, under Advocaat, we were a shambles in defence but one of the ways Sam Allardyce has dealt with that is by building a more purposeful attack, meaning the team don’t have their defensive frailties exposed as often as they were earlier in the campaign. Quite simply, we are now able to control games for longer periods with stronger attacking play. The application is there but belief in sustaining that application seems dwindle as games wear on.
Those defensive problems the team has aren’t going to go away over night though and whilst the additions of Kone and Kirchhoff have certainly shored things up to some extent, there’s still work to be done. In fact, you could argue that Kirchhoff gives us just as much in attack as he does in defence. Kirchhoff doesn’t just regain possession for us with his tackling, he starts a lot of our moves, with his superb passing ability. It’s no coincidence that we sit deeper when Kirchhoff tires as he’s been the player who stops the opposition and starts the Sunderland attack. The sooner he’s able to play a full ninety minutes, the better, as he looks just as vital in sustaining our forward play as he does in protecting the defence.
With the season getting closer to an end, there may not be time for Allardyce to tighten the defence up any further. The manager has done well to improve the back line, as much as he has, in such a short space of time. But with wins now being at a premium, perhaps it’s time to focus on building belief from the front. Let’s try and take some of that pressure off the likes of Kirchhoff by being in a comfortable position by the time he has to leave the field. If we can take more of the chances that we’ve been creating lately, the confidence will radiate around the whole team. As i said before, I’m not saying we need to be “the entertainers” but watching us lately, a clean sheet seems more likely to come in a emphatic victory rather than in a tight, edgy one.