A New Year but the same old set of problems for Sunderland, the Premier League team with a kamikaze streak as wide as the River Wear.
The curtness of Gus Poyet’s post-match briefing told its own depressing story. The normally effusive Black Cats boss simply did not want to be drawn into a discussion about another lurch back towards the relegation abyss. “I have to be careful about what I say or it will bring consequences,” he muttered darkly.
On days like this, the consequences appear simple: relegation to the Championship. The curious thing is that it comes just six days after Sunderland revived their survival hopes by becoming only the second team to beat freewheeling Everton this season. This story of this game was not as cut-and-dried as a doomed team experiencing the death rattles of their Premier League life.
Instead Sunderland are capable of extraordinary feats followed by the most depressing of retrograde steps, which usually arrive against teams that either are or might become relegation rivals.
Normally you would explain these things as a by-product of a festive fixture programme that ushers in tired limbs and tales of the unexpected, but Sunderland are so good at shooting themselves in the foot that this has nothing to do with the time of the year. It is a trend, and a seriously troubling one at that.
This time it was Lee Cattermole’s turn to play the fall guy, miscontrolling horrendously after Valentin Roberge delivered him the simplest of passes across his own six-yard box. The Black Cats captain has been one of his team’s most determined competitors since returning from suspension but this was inexplicable and inexcusable from a player that Poyet withdrew at half-time largely, he seemed to suggest, for his own good.
Cattermole will take the criticism on the chin but the problems are deeper than the one-off mistakes that are scarring games like these. Too often the team drops into the habit of picking the wrong option when they get into a position that might prompt peril for their opposition.
The stats tell their own story: 17 shots were racked up by red and white shirts but just one was on target. For all the possession football that Poyet is preaching – and just one Sunderland starter had a passing accuracy rate that was below 75% – they are failing to play the right ball at the right time. It says it all that Steven Fletcher received the ball half the amount of times that Christian Benteke did, despite all the possession that the home side enjoyed.
It is a major problem that has seeped into Black Cat DNA. No matter how much Poyet works on it on the training field, he cannot eradicate that tendency to take the wrong decision when the players cross the white line.
If they go down, this will be the reason why.
Before Cattermole’s implosion, Sunderland had looked bright and bubbly. Emanuele Giaccherini, deployed in behind a re-awakened Steven Fletcher, started with purpose and intent and rolled a shot just wide of Brad Guzan’s goal in the opening 10 minutes. Fletcher then spurned a glorious opportunity to draw first blood by taking the wrong option a few yards from goal.
The narrative changed decisively when Cattermole ceded possession under no pressure. Roberge continues to look unconvincing as a Premier League defender but there was little menace in the pass that the midfielder failed to gather and it allowed Gabriel Agbonlahor to pounce.
From then on, Sunderland’s afternoon went from challenging to treacherous – and they were unable to rise to the challenge.
The mitigation was a disappointing display from referee Mike Jones, who disallowed a Giaccherini goal that was – at the very least – level with the last man. The Cheshire official was poor enough to allow Villa free reign to spoil away in the second half, but Sunderland’s manager was honest enough to admit that it was a convenient excuse rather than the sole reason for this latest depressing reverse.
Poyet had begun the afternoon by springing a surprise, including Ji Dong-Won in the front three that was supposed to chase and harass a Villa team groping for form themselves. Ji is one of a number of Sunderland players unlikely to start next season at the Stadium of Light and there will be little lamenting when he departs; his display was underwhelming after an enterprising start. The same could be said of Giaccherini, who began well but too often took the wrong option.
He failed to press Villa enough considering the crucial role that Poyet had handed him.
After Cattermole’s error, it became an uphill struggle for the home side. Jack Colback was presented with a fantastic chance to level matters shortly after the opening goal but Ron Vlaar, returning for Villa, managed to mount a last-ditch challenge and diverted the ball behind for a Sunderland corner.
Ji was then responsible for missing another wonderful opportunity just before half-time as Benteke’s back deflected his goalbound shot wide of Guzan’s goal.
Sunderland had possession and the play but zero poise. The one moment of genuine striking class in the second half was when Giaccherini smacked a low volley past Guzan, only for the goal to be chalked off for offside. Apart from that it was Villa who enjoyed the better chances, with Marc Albrighton guilty of wasting two superb opportunities to kill off the match.
It was a dreadful start to a pivotal month that will define the Black Cats’ season. With two bids on the table for players that Poyet sees as key to any New Year revival, there are indications that the club is ready to spend to change things.
As yesterday illustrated in graphic detail, they need to do so quick to get things back on the right track.