The Agenda: The fear factor that is hampering Sunderland's survival hopes

Fear can manifest itself in many ways. In Sunderland’s case it is making Gustavo Poyet’s side over-optimistic in front of goal, argues Stuart Rayner

Jan Kruger/Getty Images Goalkeeper Adrian of West Ham dives in vain as Adam Johnson of Sunderland scores
Goalkeeper Adrian of West Ham dives in vain as Adam Johnson of Sunderland scores

You often hear it said that Premier League footballers do not care enough. Perhaps Sunderland’s care too much right now.

There is a palpable sense of fear around the Black Cats’ matches at the moment.

At the Stadium of Light you can hear it in the stands, but wherever they play it is most evident on the pitch.

Sunderland are in grave danger of going down. It will have wide-reaching consequences for the players, their families, and the support staff of the football club. It is a big deal.

Eye-watering amounts of money are at stake. There is good reason to be fearful of going down. But their chances of avoiding that fate would probably be greater if they were just a bit more ignorant of it.

Fear can manifest itself in a number of ways.

Sunderland’s players are happy to throw themselves into tackles, even at the risk of getting hurt. Physical fearlessness is a given for players such as Lee Cattermole, Phil Bardsley and Wes Brown. They are not afraid of receiving the ball, nor of shooting when it is at their feet. Against West Ham United on Monday night, they had 61% of the possession and 26 shots on goal. A much less ambitious West Ham had less than half as many attempts.

Sunderland’s problem at the moment is they lack the confidence to try to play the killer pass – at least until it is too late.

Daring to shoot from 35 yards out could be interpreted as a brave thing to do, but in this case it is the opposite.

Literally and figuratively, Gustavo Poyet’s team is far more comfortable with long shots.

Fifteen of the 26 goal attempts on Monday came from outside the penalty area. It was the safe option.

When Santiago Vergini shot from 35 yards and it went five yards wide, he could take solace from the fact nobody really could have expected him to score anyway.

It was when Cattermole had the ball at his left foot, with time and space to pick his spot, and when the ball bounced off Adrian to Connor Wickham midway through the second half, that the failure to find the net met with groans.

You might argue centre-back Vergini was at least taking a bit of responsibility, doing his bit to score the goal Sunderland needed to settle their fans and give them a foothold in the game. But you need a bit of common sense too. It does not take a brain surgeon to work out that, generally speaking, the further you are from goal when you shoot, the less likely it is to hit the target. And with so much more time to see it coming, there is even less chance of the goalkeeper not saving it if it does.

That may strike you as one of the most obvious statements you will ever read in this newspaper, but it is a message Sunderland’s players are not taking on board. Statistics tell us 53% of the Black Cats’ shots this season have come from outside the penalty area.

Newcastle United are the only Premier League team to chance their arm more from distance. Just 6% come from inside the six-yard box. Only Swansea City, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa are more averse to tap-ins.

Perhaps it partly comes down to a question of culture. “The fans have to learn to relax with how we want to play,” warned Charlie Oatway in the build-up to Monday’s game. They might not be so used to the style of football we want to play.

“We had it at Brighton when Gus first came in, the fans maybe didn’t fully understand and they wanted us to play in a certain way.”

The Londoner might at first glance strike you as an archetypal English footballer, but if he was not before, the former lower-league midfielder has become a convert to Poyet’s philosophy since joining the Uruguayan’s coaching team in 2009.

It was easy to think back to Oatway’s comments when, as the half-time whistle blew on Monday, Sunderland were passing sideways just in front of the centre-circle to the annoyance of their booing fans.

“Even when the fans are screaming ‘Get it forward!’ we’ve not asked them to, and there’s no point if there’s no one there to cross it into,” Oatway pointed out.

With Poyet employing five defenders and two holding midfielders against a side with one up front, there rarely was anyone to cross to on Monday.

As a former Real Zaragoza midfielder, Oatway’s boss is a student of the approach which has taken Spain to the pinnacle of world football.

It asks players to take time on the ball, manoeuvring it and the opposition until gaps open up to exploit.

The patience bit of the equation Sunderland are getting better at. They can be Zen-like on the ball at times, admirably immune to the frustration of fidgety fans, only to panic and pull the trigger before the opening appears.

But when it does, too often they lack the ruthlessness, the awareness or most likely the courage to make the most of it.

The chances are it is the players, rather than their coach, putting them on themselves, but the mental shackles need to come off – quickly.

Journalists

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