Sunderland tried two different approaches to scoring a goal on Saturday and both failed. It is not the tactics which need changing at the Stadium of Light, or even the coach – it is the players.
The problem is, the Black Cats realistically have a minimum of three games before they can introduce the goalscorer they so badly need and that is always assuming Roberto De Fanti can find one. The Italian’s first transfer window as a director of football hardly inspired confidence.
In the meantime, nine of the 30 or so more points needed to avoided relegation will be up for grabs. On the evidence of the 0-0 draw with Norwich City, it is hard to see them beating any of Everton, Cardiff City and Aston Villa, especially not with the first two coming away from home. Draws are just not enough.
Three times in the last month the Wearsiders’ failure to score has at least been mitigated by their solidity at the back, but an act of added-time stupidity means the man most responsible for that new-found security, Wes Brown, will miss all three upcoming games.
As the scoreline shows, Saturday’s was not a game of two halves in the clichéd sense but it was in terms of Sunderland’s approach.
In the first half they shot as soon as they got sight of goal, only once pulling the trigger from inside the penalty area and then only just. Almost without exception, though, their shots lacked power and direction.
Presumably after strong half-time words from Gustavo Poyet – he had plenty left over to describe his team at full-time – they adopted a different and by the standards of this season near-revolutionary tactic of getting the ball and players into the box at the same time. When they did they either seemed frightened to shoot or poor touches prevented it. Brown hit the post with a header from yards out, Ki Sung-Yueng missed an open goal from outside the area.
No wonder the supporters were as agitated as Poyet by the final whistle.
Especially away from home, Norwich are not a great side. Those are not the opponents Sunderland beat. Not since Paolo Di Canio led them to victory at St James’ Park in April have they seen off a genuine bottom half of the Premier League side.
Still licking their wounds from this month’s 5-1 hammering by Luis Suarez, Chris Hughton’s side showed negligible ambition yet still had the best of the first-half chances. In the opening 45 minutes, it was quantity, not quality from the hosts.
Ondrej Celustka set the tone after quarter of an hour. When Sebastian Larsson squared a free-kick to him, the distance the Czech full-back shot from might politely be described as “optimistic”. It went wide. There were no polite words to describe Ki’s 25-yarder after Phil Bardsley laid the ball off to him two minutes later.
Larsson (twice), Lee Cattermole and Fabio Borini all missed from outside the area. Emanuele Giaccherini hit the target later in the half, but with so little power he need not have.
De Fanti’s answer to Sunderland’s post-Darren Bent lack of goals was to spend £6.5m on Jozy Altidore. The American’s last three performances have not been a great advert for the former agent’s eye for talent.
Altidore did at least have his side’s first effort from inside the area. Had he taken it quickly he might have scored but, lacking the confidence, he dwelt on the ball long enough for Michael Turner to smother his shoot.
When Altidore was substituted with 22 minutes left the enthusiasm which greeted it seemed more about his departure than the introduction of Steven Fletcher, another whose morale looks shot.
Depressingly for Sunderland, it seems to be up to their left-back to lead the way when it comes to threatening the goal and at least Bardsley could lay claim to forcing John Ruddy’s first save, after 37 minutes.
It roused Norwich. Gary Hooper was as surprised as anyone John O’Shea could not jump to Martin Olsson’s cross, which is why it just hit the striker when he ought to have scored. When Hooper skipped past Brown, Vito Mannone saved.
Bardsley nearly put through his own net from the corner, leading to another Sebastian Bassong headed over. Ruddy’s throw nearly created a half-ending goal, but Leroy Fer steered at the goalkeeper.
Sunderland’s approach was different in the second half, just not the outcome. Cattermole perfectly picked out Brown at the far post on 58 minutes. At least it would have been perfect had Brown been a striker hungry to hit the ball first time. He tried to chest it and it fell to Celustka, who had it taken off him by Johan Elmander as he pondered what best to do with it.
With Ruddy flying out at him, Brown hit the post when close in on goal again, but more blame might reasonably be put on Fletcher for making contact with fresh air rather than Larsson’s corner.
If Sunderland’s players continue to reject gifts like this they will not be any more popular with their wives on Christmas Day than they were with their supporters on Saturday.
Borini capitalised on Turner and Steven Whittaker’s mix-up when he ran through on goal, but lacked the ruthlessness to properly punish it.
No chance was better than the one served on a plate to Ki. With Ruddy trying in vain to dispossess him near the corner flag, Borini picked out his side’s most gifted player, but all the Korean could do was plop the ball on to the roof of the net.
Such profligacy ought to have been more harshly punished but Sunderland were fortunate to have Mannone and Brown at the other end. The Italian will be on his own on Boxing Day.
His save from substitute Ricky van Wolfswinkel came seconds before Ki’s counter-attack and ought to have presented Hooper with an easy chance, but Brown expertly outmuscled the former Celtic striker.
The Black Cats will have to do without Brown’s cool head after he lost it in added time.
Bardsley, in the first half, and Larsson in the second were lucky to get away with reckless challenges – only the Swede was booked – but Brown’s was the worst of the lot for its crassness. His frustration boiled over into a two-footed lunge on van Wolfswinkel. Suddenly Sunderland look vulnerable at both ends of the field.