The Agenda: What has gone wrong at the Stadium of Light?

So what has happened to Sunderland? Chief sports writer Mark Douglas analyses the reasons why the Black Cats have collapsed to the worst start in Premier League history

The Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland AFC
The Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland AFC

It seems an age ago when the R-word that dominated conversations on Wearside was revolution.

Paolo Di Canio’s self-proclaimed revolution was a convenient badge for supporters desperate to see a new approach at the Stadium of Light, but there was no substance to his bold claims. Now relegation is the omnipresent fear on Wearside and, while the word from inside the camp is that they still believe that survival is an achievable aim, that seven-point gap to safety is starting to look like a chasm.

So what went wrong? And can it be put right?

NO PRE-SEASON

Paolo Di Canio was big on preparation but bizarrely opted to arrange just one friendly above the Barclays Asia Trophy, which was in place before he arrived. The Italian claimed his team would be better for working intensively on their shape and, behind-closed-doors, learning the system that he wanted to play.

That approach has failed spectacularly. No manager in English football has ever thought it was a good idea not to play a pre-season, and Di Canio missed vital opportunities to assess his new players in competitive situations by playing such a truncated summer programme.

The lie of Sunderland being one of the fittest teams in the league has also been exposed. Di Canio said his programme would make them one of the best-conditioned sides in the league but they have frequently crumbled in the second half. This lesson has to be learned.

TOO MANY VOICES

Three managers in the dug-out spells trouble for Sunderland’s squad. They are suffering from information overload, with Gus Poyet’s strategy a complete deviation from the Di Canio method.

It hardly helps confidence to see other players suddenly promoted from the reserves. Jack Colback was flavour of the month under Di Canio but was immediately dropped for Phil Bardsley on Saturday. That is destructive. Sunderland desperately need some sort of stability but their current strategy does not seem to deliver it.

THE PLAYERS

To brand them gutless was unfair and not entirely accurate. They lack belief and some might lack the ability to change a game, but for the most part they do care.

And there are some honest players in there too: players who led the inquest on Saturday and told others that they had let the club down. At least one is understood to have been frustrated enough to speak out in the dressing room after the Swansea game.

But the big question surrounds whether they are good enough. Some of the new arrivals appear to have been quickly ‘found out’ by the pace and mentality of English football. The squad is coming apart at the seams.

RECRUITMENT

An adherence to the financial fair play policies is a laudable aim for Sunderland. Ellis Short was one of the driving forces behind the financial re-alignment that the Premier League has demanded so his summer spending was all done with an eye on the bottom line and the wage bill has had to be bent to satisfy those requirements.

But if Short was looking for value this summer, the anointed saviour – Roberto De Fanti – has not been able to deliver it. Two of the club’s most high-profile summer signings were playing under-21 football on Wearside on Saturday while Sunderland tried to dig out a victory in South Wales, and that must prompt questions about De Fanti’s contribution to this mess.

A former FIFA agent with no previous experience working within an English football club, he has skirted under the radar despite enjoying considerable influence since joining the club in June.

He advised Short on the Di Canio appointment and is understood to have favoured Poyet (after it became obvious that Roberto Di Matteo had his sights trained elsewhere). At the moment it looks like a miscalculation by Short, although his intention in changing the structure – which was to improve scouting and recruitment – was absolutely correct.

Serious questions have to be asked about De Fanti, the players he brought in and whether Valentino Angeloni (another figure operating in the shadows) is the right appointment.

SET-PIECES

Sunderland’s defending of free-kicks and corners has been absolutely dreadful this season. Not until Kevin Ball got hold of them and managed to drill some defensive application into them did they look capable of not conceding every time a dead ball was awarded.

Quite what Di Canio was doing over the summer when he had laid out defensive plans is unclear, but this is arguably Poyet’s biggest priority.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer