Sunderland’s away form is threatening to end their hopes of European football. Mark Douglas looks at ways to solve their chronic travel sickness
IF STEVE Bruce is still searching for a cure for Sunderland’s chronic case of travel sickness on Sunday evening, he could do worse than tap up his opposite number when the managers meet for their customary post-match glass of red wine at Craven Cottage.
The Black Cats boss was left tearing his hair out and making veiled threats to his players after Sunderland’s latest away defeat at a decidedly mediocre Wigan – a loss made all the worse for it’s thudding predictability.
It was bad but if anyone has the answer it will be Roy Hodgson, the man who has spirited one of the most remarkable transformations of the Premier League era.
Sunday’s opponents Fulham went an astonishing 34 away games without a win before Hodgson took them back to basics, making them hard to beat and infusing the side with quick, counter-attacking players capable of cutting teams open on the break.
If only life was that simple for Bruce, who is struggling to find a way to transfer the formation and strategy that works so brilliantly at the Stadium of Light into an effective system to win points on their travels.
Bruce is not the first Black Cats boss to diagnose this acute loss of confidence and form on their travels. Roy Keane and Ricky Sbragia were burdened with it too – but it was easily written off as a general symptom of Sunderland’s struggle to make the grade in the top flight.
Bruce’s problem is that his Black Cats are now credible Premier League performers, as defeats of Arsenal and Liverpool illustrated to thrilling effect. But the dark cloud that has followed them on their travels has not lifted despite the influx of talent and confidence that the new manager has overseen.
One Premier League away win in the whole of 2009 tells its own story, but there is no getting away from the worrying conclusion that the problem has become more pronounced under Bruce.
He has placed a premium on attacking football at the Stadium of Light, strengthening Sunderland’s spine with two combative and tough-as-teak central midfielders, who give the likes of Kieran Richardson, Andy Reid and Steed Malbranque the space and time to create and prompt. His attempt to convert the offensive-minded Richardson into a left-back earlier in the season hints at the attacking philosophy that has injected optimism and enthusiasm into the Wearside masses – and ended the apathy that was swirling around home games at the Stadium of Light.
The accusation levelled at his side after their weekend surrender at Wigan is that they only know how to play one way. Unlike their rivals for Europa League football they are not capable of winning ugly on their travels – and are yet to salvage any points from their poor performances away from Wearside.
You can’t say Bruce hasn’t been working on the problem. As far back as pre-season he was experimenting with the 4-5-1 formation which has failed to spark at Wigan, Birmingham or Burnley and during the summer it looked like it might be the answer.
True, Sunderland were lining up with a single striker in those away days on the Continent and at Celtic in August. But he was operating in front of an advanced and attack-minded midfielder in Richardson.
There have been moments where the strategy has looked the answer but they have been fleeting and far between.
Sunderland’s best moments on the road have come with the traditional two-man attack – Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones terrorising Manchester United and Bent and Fraizer Campbell in tandem at White Hart Lane during that hard-to-take defeat a little over three weeks ago. Bruce seemed to signal an end to the experiment during the second half of a disappointing afternoon at the DW Stadium, scrapping the 4-5-1 system in favour of the more traditional 4-4-2 with Campbell pushed forward to support Bent.
It was better, but Sunderland still struggled to impose themselves as an attacking force on the Latics.
That can be partially put down to Campbell’s continued struggle to impose himself on Premier League defences. There will be some of a red and white persuasion ready to cast him aside on the basis of a pretty unremarkable first three months at the Stadium of Light, but Bruce didn’t buy him as a ready-made top-flight performer.
He is ‘one for the future’ and will require nurturing if he is to fulfil his potential.
Pace and attacking invention are the main weapons in his armoury but he is lacking presence at the moment, and has the tendency to drift out of games when Sunderland aren’t seeing much of the ball – as has been the case on their travels this season.
The return of Jones will help at Fulham. Sorely missed, perhaps the away results in his absence will quell Bruce’s nagging suspicion that his work-rate is not quite up to scratch.
Is it a mental thing? Phil Bardsley argues not.
Things must change this weekend, as Bruce faces the first big roadblock in the path to becoming a top 10 side.