The road to Wembley was laced with landmines for Gus Poyet’s self-destructing Sunderland on Saturday. Once again, they placed most of them there themselves.
First things first: Sunderland will play better than this against Manchester City on Sunday. If that sounds like an idle boast it shouldn’t, for this collection of players would really be going some to serve up a performance as subterranean as the one that consigned them to their biggest away day reverse since Poyet’s first game at Swansea.
Flippancy aside, the Black Cats will surely raise their game for the club’s biggest one-off game since 1992. History suggests that the big occasions coax the best out of a team that needs serious surgery in the summer to avoid another season of struggle.
Saturday was a sadly familiar tale with a sting in the tail. Three down at half-time, you could feel the Wembley chance slipping away from some of their players who performed as if they had one eye fixed on Wembley. That Sunderland improved starkly after the break may have handed Emanuele Giaccherini and Seb Larsson an opportunity to force their way into Poyet’s plans.
City would certainly relish a repeat of this performance on Wembley way. Sunderland stood so far off Arsenal in that opening quarter of an hour that they might as have invited the Gunners to cut them apart with their devastatingly beautiful brand of one-touch football.
It was a performance so static that it made the newly bronzed Dennis Bergkamp statue look positively mobile. How the Dutch destroyer must have licked his lips at the opportunity presented by Sunderland’s standoffish approach.
Manuel Pellegrini’s men have been less-than bewitching themselves recently but Wembley will be a punishing experience if Sunderland reprise that.
At least under Poyet there will be no repeat of Len Ashurst’s mistake of changing the system just before the Cup final in 1985. He knows only one way of playing, and won’t alter it despite the evidence here. “I was expecting them to at least do the basics,” he admitted afterwards.
“But it is to do with me, not the team. I don’t think you can blame the team because this is the way I want to play and with respect to Everton it is only the second time we have to play against a big team away from home. It definitely didn’t work.”
At Wembley he will have two sure hands back at the tiller. Wes Brown and Lee Cattermole were the big beneficiaries on Saturday, their importance to the cause emphasised by the paucity of the performances of those who played in their place.
Santiago Vergini had a nightmare while Liam Bridcutt does not yet possess the strength of personality to take a game by the scruff of its neck like Cattermole. They needed that on Saturday and will thankfully have that back for the big one on Sunday.
Otherwise, the need for improvement is urgent. Sunderland do not possess enough guile for more than two or three of their players to suffer an off-day without the consequences being ugly. When nine or ten deliver less than their potential, the result is never less than grisly.
It is Poyet’s chief concern now that his team do not seem capable of occupying the middle ground of scraping results when playing badly. Granted, they managed to scrape through successive rounds of the FA Cup without particularly flying but how often has that happened in the Premier League? Stoke at home perhaps. Other than that they have been reaching for the stars or swigging in the gutter.
Again on Saturday, there was no shade of grey for the kamikaze Cats. Instead it was a dark day for a team that had enjoyed just seven per cent of possession by the time a chastened Olivier Giroud had swept Arsenal into an early and deadly lead.
Make no mistake, even delivering their very best might not have been enough for Sunderland on a day when the Gunners clicked through the gears. But Sunderland were so far below it that you can’t help but hatch a fresh set of anxieties about their Premier League future this week.
That is for another day. Inevitably, the agenda moved on to who might have played themselves in or out of Poyet’s Wembley plans afterwards. From this vantage point it seems pretty simple: the team sheet should begin and end with the faultless Vito Mannone. Everyone else should be forced to sweat it out.
In practice, though, the defence picks itself and so does most of the midfield. It is the strikers who continue to give Poyet sleepless nights.
Indeed the listless Jozy Altidore might have been the biggest victim of this brutal defeat, neither offering the sureness of touch or mobility to offer any kind of outlet on a day when admittedly Sunderland served him the most meagre service.
Poyet has encouraged and nurtured Altidore since taking over but just recently, signs of frustration have emerged with a player who – at £6million and a sizeable weekly wage – should be offering more than one decent display in eight. Emanuele Giaccherini, his second-half replacement, was full of vim and vigour in the second half and has surely leapfrogged Altidore as the next cab off the rank if Steven Fletcher fails to recover from an Achilles injury.
Might it be time to bring Fabio Borini in from the wing too? The Italy forward looked smart while Seb Larsson’s claims surely deserve further scrutiny.
To recap, the day began badly as Arsenal passed Sunderland off the park for the first 15 minutes. Giroud scored twice – the second from an awful Vergini mistake – and then Tomas Rosicky added a beautiful third. Laurent Koscielny benefited from awful marking to make it four before Giaccherini’s elegant consolation. It was a gloomy, gloomy day.
“I made a mistake in the press conference – if there is one player starting next week, it is Lee Cattermole. The rest at the moment are substitutes,” a brooding Poyet warned.