Time of reckoning arrives for struggling Black Cats

Gus Poyet has labelled Sunderlan's clash against West Ham as a 'must-win' game

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images Sunderland coach Gustavo Poyet
Sunderland coach Gustavo Poyet

Gus Poyet smashed an unspoken managerial rule on Thursday.

He admitted ahead of a trip to Upton Park which feels somehow season-defining for Sunderland: “We must win every game, but when you are at the bottom and you are playing against a team which is close to you, I think you can call it a must-win game.”

Protocol usually dictates no matter how important the game, you never label it “must win” for fear of losing.

As well Poyet might, for Sunderland are staring down the barrel of the Championship as things currently stand.

Now is really not the time for sugar-coating the reality of the Black Cats’ stark situation.

So here are the collection of unwanted stats Sunderland have collected this year: fewest points in the calendar year of any team in the entire country (a mere 25). Lowest number of shots per game in the Premier League (8.6 per game).

Most worryingly of all, they have dipped below the average number of points for a bottom-placed side in the Premier League era (most had nine, Sunderland have eight).

People often talk of the New Year as the cut-off point for teams stranded at the bottom, citing the fact just one team in Premier League history has managed to stay up after being marooned at the foot of the table.

West Brom’s fantastic turnaround in the 2004/2005 season remains the only instance of a team managing to climb from the bottom of the table at the turn of the year into a position of safety.

Yet the stark reality is Sunderland might have already left it too late.

In the entire Premier League era, only two teams have ever been bottom after 15 games and managed to stay up, with the vast majority of the bottom sides actually performing significantly worse in the second half of the campaign.

Indeed, only six teams since 1992 have closed the gap between themselves and the team occupying the final safety berth.

That is quite the consideration for those relying on Sunderland’s improved run of home fixtures in the second half of the season.

Given the mountain of evidence whch suggests Sunderland have left it too late, Poyet’s task is three-fold.

First he needs to convince people it is not too late; secondly, he is required to effect the changes required quickly and thirdly, the message needs to get through to the players. On occasion, it has felt the Black Cats’ players perhaps do not appreciate the seriousness of the situation, but Poyet has been at pains to point it out to them this week.

He has been scrutinising their attitude during training this week and admits some things he has seen have troubled him. He added: “I would say that in the beginning, it was difficult, but after Wednesday yes.

“I am looking at every single session as important. Every single one, every single detail is important,.

“I would not want to go training and someone scores an own goal because that will give me bad thoughts that maybe we did not get it.

“I like to see the team going into the game convinced we are doing the right things. Let’s play the game as who we are.”

Poyet admits he was downbeat on Saturday and says it was because he had seen something in his team which he had not viewed before.

He said: “My reaction on Saturday night was sadness. I was hurt.

“I was expecting something different from the team, especially in the second half after being one-nil up and conceding in the last minute. I did not get that. The first person responsible is me but at the same time I am realistic and we are all together.

“I am not going to take it all on my shoulders, I am not that stupid. I am going to take my part, which is very big and first, but then it is the way it is.

“When will I smile again? When we win a game.”

Curtailing that run of poor form is Poyet’s priority. The suggestion is at Upton Park he will ring the changes again, reinstating Lee Cattermole to the midfield while Steven Fletcher may suffer for him returning to five across midfield.

Whatever you might think of withdrawing one of Sunderland’s two strikers in a game where they probably need to win to kick-start the sort of resurgence Poyet talks optimistically about, being out-played in last week’s defeat against Spurs illustrated the need for extra numbers in midfield. Cattermole can provide the industry while Ki can provide the enterprise they will need against a West Ham side also fighting for its life.

Poyet said: “I am expecting West Ham to start very quickly. They are at home and they need to win and they are going to put pressure on us and be a team managed by Sam Allardyce.

“I am expecting that. Then it is up to us how we are going to control the first few minutes, and if the game is still 0-0 then yes it is going to be nervy.

“Then it will be down to who is the stronger team mentally.

“We have been working on controlling the game as much as we can.”

Asked whether these games can define the season, Poyet showed an appreciation of their importance.

Sunderland need to get the bandwagon rolling again.

He said: “Probably. I only say probably because it is not the last game.”

Journalists

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