After the abysmal performances of late, and the dire straits that the team has sunk to, you would be forgiven for distrusting the positivity of this tweet from the club and presuming that this was the same old ‘unlucky’ Sunderland AFC that we have become accustomed to over past seasons – a half-decent cross, a half-decent chance, but the opposition defender clearly getting the better of the attacker, and the score remaining at 0-0. However, this was to be an early sign that mid-August crisis talks had maybe – just maybe – had their desired effect.
This small, almost insignificant moment both summed up a much-improved performance on Saturday and proved that, if a couple more signings were brought into the team, this season should be much brighter than the opening two games had perhaps foreboded.
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In previous seasons, with the likes of Colback, Johnson or Gomez under Poyet, reaching a positive attacking position would often result in an innocuous pass back to the full back, providing enough time for the opposition defenders and midfielders to reposition themselves and for the attack to fade away. Advocaat’s 4-3-3, however, lends itself to a much more direct approach than this, with players further up the pitch. Faced with Kyle Naughton in the right back position, just outside the box, Jeremain Lens showed bravery and skill as he feinted as if to go backwards, letting the ball run through his legs and losing his man to create just enough space to ping a great ball into the box for the onrushing Danny Graham. This was much to the pleasure of the Sunderland fans who had turned up in great numbers yet again to watch what they hoped would be an improved performance to the previous home game.
Lens’ brave running together with his desire to beat his man and get crosses into the box was a key feature of the match, something Sunderland fans haven’t seen since the young and fearless James McClean entered the fray at 0-1 down against Blackburn in Martin O’Neil’s first game in charge. Lens is already showing he is of a much higher calibre than McClean, though; a breath of fresh air to the side and the biggest positive of the season so far. He eventually got the assist he deserved in the second half and was unlucky not to score.
Danny Graham’s off-the-ball run in this early chance was an impressive one – a powerful surge into the box showing great hunger to get onto the end of the cross. This is many fans’ favourite part of Graham’s game, and his 67 minutes on Saturday was reminiscent of his performances against Southampton and Everton last season.
Perhaps it was great defending, but Graham was unable to get his header on target. There is no question that Graham lacks the level of quality that we would like to see at Sunderland given our position. With Graham’s disappointing record in front of goal, with Fletcher’s not being too much better, and with question marks over whether Defoe can play in Advocaat’s system, there is a big worry that Sunderland will not score enough goals to stay in the division. Rather than searching for a PA to help walk his dog and launch his own fragrance (read Joel Golby’s hilarious article for vice.com), Defoe’s priority should be convincing his boss to bring in a quality strike partner to help him upfront. Another attacker who can play 4-3-3 would be a welcome and desperately needed addition to the squad. Reports continue to link the Black Cats with PSV’s Jürgen Locadia, 21, who would perhaps be a good fit with his ability to play upfront or in a wider position. If we wonder why Swansea, as with several other teams, have overtaken Sunderland in the league over the past few seasons, you need only to look at the way they have improved on Graham with Michu, then Bony and now Gomis – pace, power, and goals.
What we cannot question, however, is Graham’s passion and commitment to the cause. Despite being a Newcastle fan, he is a player that always seems to give his all, and has subsequently won over many fans. The fans have perhaps won over him, too – though he was unable to trouble the keeper with that early chance, his fist pump and shout of “come on!” at the South stand in full chorus is enough to prove his desire, leading the line by his example of passion that the rest of the team seemed to latch on to after this early chance. For this reason, I slightly prefer Graham to Stephen Fletcher, who should have scored in the second half from another dangerous Lens cross.
Fans can be disappointed that Sunderland did not win the game in the end. Rodwell was denied a penalty when his first time shot hit Ashley Williams on the arm at 1-1. The reaction from the players, throwing their arms in the air at the referee in unison with the cry from the Sunderland faithful, was not one of desperation that was so evident throughout last season. Rather, it was one of significantly increased passion and a desire to win the game. Though Swansea controlled large parts of the game, no one can argue that Sunderland would not have deserved all three points had Larson scored his last minute free kick which he hit straight into the wall.
After the intense scrutiny in the media, the players proved a point, but the point they gained could prove to be even more important. Had they shown similar fight to this from the very first kick of the new season, it is difficult to imagine them being thumped by Leicester and Norwich.
However, it is important now not to get carried away. We are still bottom of the table without a win and clearly have some issues at the other end of the pitch. We can’t afford only to be putting in a shift when the doom mongers are calling or when relegation is beckoning. What’s vital now is a convincing victory on Tuesday night, a couple of quality signings before the end of the window and to go down to Villa with the same desire to win that we showed on Saturday. Without being the strongest team in the league, surely that is not too much to ask.