THERE were plenty of legitimate smokescreens to hide it behind, but Sunderland’s achilles heel was on show at the Britannia Stadium.
Had the officials got the key decisions right, the Black Cats would have been celebrating a third consecutive away win rather than lamenting a third defeat of 2011.
However, rival managers ought to keep the DVD of Saturday’s 3-2 defeat in Stoke and label it “How to beat Sunderland”.
Defensive solidity has been a cornerstone of the Wearsiders’ season, but in the last week their legs have turned to jelly.
Chelsea scored four at the Stadium of Light with a stunning display of midfield skill which will prove hard to replicate, but Stoke City’s tactics require far less talent. As usual, they simply bombarded their opponents until they folded.
Craig Gordon has had a fine season since returning from a broken arm, but get in his face and pump balls at him and he inspires fear rather than confidence.
Wolverhampton Wanderers realised as much in November and, with more ex-Sunderland players than anyone, so did Stoke.
Not that the Potters know any other way.
Their ugly up-and-unders and scrums are well suited to a Six Nations weekend, but for those who prefer the beautiful game, it is painful viewing.
The officials ought to have ruled out John Carew and Robert Huth’s first goals, but the offences must have been hard to spot when Stoke bombard the penalty area from every set-piece within 30 yards of the goalline.
Stoke’s army of giants crowd the goalkeeper and flood his penalty area, pushing and pulling all the way, then pump the ball high into it, reducing the outcome to a game of chance.
With 16 long throws, 12 corners and 15 free-kicks, their numbers came up.
Discouraging these base arts is difficult, but it requires assertiveness from officials and goalkeepers.
On Tuesday Gordon’s willingness to leave his line proved his downfall, in the Potteries the opposite was true.
At 6ft 3in he should not have been intimidated, but the Scot lacked the confidence to charge through and let those in front of him worry about the harm he would cause them rather than vice versa.
It would have shown Stoke he would not be scared off, and probably made the blocking on him more obvious to the officials.
Instead he looked like a scared child told to get into a steaming bath, dipping his toe in, then stepping back to complain. Rory Delap’s long throw-ins are weapons of mass confusion which, with Sunderland in town, are almost guaranteed to cause damage in any 45-minute period.
Perhaps an enquiry into how they went undetected in 11 months on Wearside could be a first job for new director David Milliband.
Stoke launched first-half nine exocets, most inducing panic. Kenwyne Jones volleyed over from one, from another Huth’s effort hit Gordon in the face. From the sixth in 32 minutes, Titus Bramble headed the ball straight up instead of out, and when Gordon did not put up a strong enough fight to collect it Huth headed down for the offside Carew to score. The goal stood.
Gordon literally got to grips with Delap’s throws after the restart, catching the first three cleanly, but succumbed to two free-kicks instead. He alone, though, should not shoulder the blame. Sunderland’s defenders ought to have been more aggressive, more like their manager in his playing days.
The Wearsiders compounded the problem by conceding two poor free-kicks as they looked to be seeing out victory, Sulley Muntari swiping at Carew and the otherwise brilliant Kieran Richardson catching Dean Whitehead. The offside Carew went to head Jermaine Pennant’s first free-kick but it bounced off his arm –not deliberately – and in off the knee of the offside Huth. The winner was indisputable, the stretching Huth giving another curling delivery from Pennant a deserved finish.
The injustice felt stronger for the football Sunderland played since Richardson lashed home after 114 seconds.
They played five at the back to counter the blitzkrieg, and with 23 minutes left Tony Pulis had to change shape. Richardson ran well from deep, Stéphane Sessègnon’s flair was unmistakable and Asamoah Gyan’s movement clever, particularly once Sessègnon dropped deeper after the break.
Sunderland’s play was everything Stoke’s was not, and for 83 minutes it looked likely to be rewarded.
Debutant Muntari got a grip on midfield and sed the ball as effectively as he won it, spraying the 48th-minute pass which allowed Gyan to make a fool of former Middlesbrough defender Huth.
Tottenham Hotspur will not resort to Stoke’s prehistoric gameplan on Saturday but even so Bruce needs to address Sunderland’s weakness quickly, if only to minimise the chances of us having to endure dreadful “football” any time soon.