The Agenda: Why Gus Poyet must win his battle with Sunderland's kamikaze streak

Black Cats boss Gus Poyet has to make sure their tendency to blow up under pressure is corrected if they are to stay in the Premier League

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

It is a statistic to send chills down the spine of Gus Poyet: an incredible 21% of the goals Sunderland have conceded in the Premier League this season have been presented to the opposition by those in red and white shirts.

Five own goals, two unnecessary penalties and two back passes straight to an opposition striker: that’s nine of the 42 Sunderland have shipped. Take them away and they have the joint fifth best defensive record in the entire division. Include them and they’re languishing in 16th.

Unforced errors are the theme that has dogged the Black Cats efforts to drag themselves out of the relegation scrap. Every team in the Premier League makes mistakes: none has come close to contributing so heavily to their own downfall like Sunderland have.

It is the frustration that eats at every Wearsider this season. Sunderland’s biggest problem this season has never been a lack of talent, desire, drive or application – it has been their maddening and mystifying kamikaze streak. Inconsistency has long been a problem with the core of the group assembled by Steve Bruce but this season it is something that has mutated into a desperate tendency to shoot themselves in the foot.

The worry for Poyet is that with the exception of John O’Shea’s rash challenge in the early-season Crystal Palace game, these unforced errors have all come on his watch. It is a problem he has recognised, pinpointed and attempted to shake – but had no significant success in doing so yet.

There have been plenty of encouraging developments since Poyet was given the job, not least a convincing and impressive playing philosophy that has finally steered Sunderland away from the torpor that was building under Martin O’Neill. They are capable of great moments and on their day, look like a slick, well-oiled passing team that should be nestled safely in the top half of the Premier League.

On other days, they look awful. Poyet’s problem is that these two scenarios often interchange on a weekly basis. There is no consistency whatsoever.

For the purposes of this piece cup games have been discounted but Sunday’s match was another case in point.

Sunderland’s best player on the day was Lee Cattermole for 50 or so minutes yet in the closing stages, with the Black Cats still clinging to some hope of progress to the semi-finals, he delivered a pass straight into the path of Matty Fryatt to effectively strangle any hopes that they had of re-establishing a foothold in the game.

So what is it that makes Sunderland so susceptible to these mistakes?

Roy Keane might have twanged a raw nerve in the Sunderland camp when he let Cattermole have the benefit of his razor-sharp tongue. “When you’re relying on someone like Lee Cattermole,” he said, “you know you’re in trouble.”

Is it a problem of personnel, then? Keane’s suggestion was that Sunderland were giving responsibility to the wrong men but running down the list of those who are responsible for the unforced errors throws up a few recurring names: O’Shea, Cattermole and Phil Bardsley being three of them.

Surely no one who watches Sunderland with any regularity would ever accuse that trio of being at the heart of the Black Cats’ struggles. Rather the problem in this case is that those three are the ones prepared to take on more responsibility because the supporting cast have not done enough: their desperation to cover up the shortfalls resulting in uncharacteristic errors.

Take O’Shea, for example. His mistakes have largely come when he was not paired alongside Wes Brown, the centre-back who he clearly feels more comfortable and more composed lining up alongside.

Similarly Cattermole’s mistakes seem to come on afternoons when he is trying to move Sunderland through the gears. When they played Aston Villa and struggled, the midfielder’s attempts to drive the team on were undermined by his dreadful error that led to the only goal.

Judgement calls, you might call them: but judgement is impaired when Sunderland have been playing with the threat of relegation on their collective shoulders for so long.

Poyet’s explaining away of Cattermole’s error on Sunday seemed to tally with this. The Uruguayan has managed to keep a lid on his frustration for the most part but there is little doubt that he believes this team needs structural repairs.

“The one who gives you everything, who is involved in everything, is the one who often makes a mistake,” said Poyet.

“If you hide or are not in the game or do nothing to take a risk and try to win the game, then for sure you are not going to make any mistakes.

“That’s the bad side of football. The ones who take responsibility and the ones who care – and show it week-in, week-out – are the ones in the position to make mistakes.”

This weekend, the pressure is on. Poyet has already hailed the game as a potential “cup final” for his team and with the fixtures unfurling as they are, he can ill-afford to have the sort of mistakes that have ruined the season so far.

But he also speaks of maintaining the philosophy, playing style and – largely – the personnel that have served him so far. With that in mind, you suspect this a problem that may not be solved until a summer turnover of players that will see Poyet stamp his imprint on the club.

In the meantime, he must hope that Sunderland’s kamikaze streak is quietened for long enough to win a set of vital games on the horizon. It promises to be a gnawingly-tense few weeks.


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