Sunderland's season is heading for a crossroads at Upton Park on Saturday.
The red-and-white debate is creeping away from whether the Black Cats are good enough to survive under Gus Poyet’s leadership and onto the more funereal topic of whether they are already down. Such defeatist talk brooks no argument with Poyet or the players who have spoken since Saturday’s defeat against Tottenham but there is a realism among a support who are growing weary at talk of ‘jam tomorrow’.
Here are five ways Poyet – and Ellis Short – can save Sunderland’s season.
1. Get back to basics – and consider the unthinkable
When Gus Poyet first took over at the Stadium of Light he talked about building from the back and reasserting the team’s defensive authority but that message seems to have been lost over recent weeks.
It is a revealing statistic that for all the talk of struggling to create and score, Sunderland are actually comfortably mid-table when it comes to scoring on their own turf.
They are ninth highest scorers in the division at home – but rock bottom when it comes to shipping goals. The same is true of their away defensive record, so somewhere along the line the thinking has become muddled when it comes to building from the back.
Wes Brown’s return to the back four was meant to change that but if anything, Sunderland have become more brittle since their impressively stoic effort against Manchester City. Yet no one would say that Brown was the problem – much less the reason for them shipping six goals at home in the space of a few days.
So is it time to examine John O’Shea’s contribution? Ever since he joined Sunderland he has been an automatic pick, but the leadership and authority that he obviously shows off-the-field is not necessarily an insurance against being dropped. Perish the thought, but might Brown work better alongside someone who isn’t his former Manchester United colleague?
2. Sunderland need Lee Cattermole
As depressing as it is to hear Cattermole admit that he will probably see a red card again in his career (as he did this week), you can only applaud his honesty. And whatever you might think about Cattermole, the team could have done with some of his midfield drive as they struggled to match Tottenham at the weekend.
It was worrying for Sunderland that they looked so short when they reverted to four in midfield against Spurs and Poyet will surely return to a five-man midfield for the foreseeable future. If that is the case, there has to be a role for Cattermole – who had looked like a real force for good in the run up to his red card.
The next question is whether Cattermole can work with Ki, but the former Middlesbrough man is not nearly as limited or inflexible as people think. He played just behind a forward for the England under-21s and can play to the right of a midfield five if required. Quite simply, the most important thing is that the Black Cats actually utilise him.
3. Will the real Steven Fletcher please stand up?
The form of the Scotland striker has been a major worry for Poyet, who can’t have ignored the lack of contribution made by Fletcher against Tottenham.
For all that it appeared to be a tactical decision to rest him against Chelsea there is a case that he doesn’t deserve to be involved at the moment anyway. Two goals so far this season is not a great return for a player who has been handed more opportunities than he was when Martin O’Neill had Sunderland playing bromide football last year. Poyet needs to get to the root of the Fletcher problem. Is it the system or is it a question of sharpness after being coaxed back into the front-line attack without much of a pre-season?
Whichever it is, he is one of the few players in the Sunderland squad that can make a genuine difference in games. The sooner he is given his head the better.
4. The long and Short of it is they need to invest in January
The latest dispatch is that Sunderland’s owner wants to see whether the team can improve before deciding whether to invest in January and you can see his logic. Having been burned by O’Neill’s woeful January buys, why would he sanction further investment?
Quite simply the club are finished if he doesn’t. It would send a terrible message to the team and supporters that this season has been written off and store up problems for the future.
5. Integrate Emanuele Giaccherini now
Never mind new investment, Sunderland already have a gold-plated forward in Giaccherini. One whisper from the Stadium of Light is that Poyet is unsure why so much was spent on a player who, while talented, does not play in a position where Sunderland need someone of his ilk.
A fair point, but Sunderland do not have enough talent to discard him.