The Mackem Meltdown

This expression says it all: “Damn, we really are terrible.”

Things could not be worse at Stadium of Light. With just 2 points out of their initial 10 games, Sunderland have now registered the joint-worst start to the Premier League campaign in it’s history – equalling the 1995/96 record set by Manchester City. Should David Moyes’ lads stumble and fall in the next two matches – away at Bournemouth and home against Hull – the Citizens’ horrific record will be eclipsed. And even though both Cherries and Tigers seem like two teams completely within SAFC’s reach, this calamity of a team Mackems have cannot guarantee any positive result at the moment.

Where it has all begun? Already last year, the team was looking desperate from the very beginning, having suffered some humiliating defeats like 1-3 at home to Norwich or a shocking 2-6 at Goodison Park against Everton. In October, Dick Advocaat lost his job – but initially, not much has improved. Until the New Year’s Eve, whoever wished to beat Sunderland has more or less done it – often times without too much trouble. By the end of the year, Mackems were sitting on just 12 points, which was 7 less than the 17th Swansea. They were also leaking goals like crazy: 38 in just 19 outings, which is exactly two per game.

The road to redemption started in January. Big Sam Allardyce started off by signing Jan Kirchhoff, Lamine Koné and Wahbi Khazri. While the German and the Ivorian have immediately improved team’s defensive performance, the Tunisian brought a little bit of much-needed creativity to the table. A sudden explosion of goalscoring form by Jermain Defoe followed and Black Cats took out Aston Villa, Swansea, Norwich and Chelsea, earning just enough points to lift them above Newcastle and Norwich. That, combined with 9 draws and only 4 defeats in the 2nd round of games was their saving grace.

It’s now the end of October 2016. Big Sam is gone, having been appointed as an England manager and then promply sacked for discussing illegal businesses with an undercover journalist. Winger Adam Johnson serves a six-year jail sentence, having been caught grooming a teenage Sunderland fangirl. Midfielder Yann M’Vila, who had a very fruitful loan spell at the club, has returned to Rubin Kazan because not a single soul at the Stadium of Light was willing to return his calls. Centre-back Younes Kaboul has joined Watford for £4 million and is now a pillar of Hornets’ defensive line. Yeah – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

 

Then, there were the injuries. In August, Vito Mannone seriously damaged his elbow and has been absent ever since. Seb Larsson needed a knee ligaments surgery and is now he’s done until January. In August, it was time for Fabio Borini, who suffered a groin strain against Southampton. Lee Cattermole picked up a back injury against Crystal Palace a month later; in the same match, Adnan Januzaj limped off with a problem in his ankle. Jan Kirchhoff crashed out a just a week later, having streched his hamstring against West Bromwich. Soon after that, Jason Denayer picked up a muscle problem on an international duty. It was all nothing but depressing.

By this point, the overwhelmingly passive summer transfer window has come back to bite Mackems in the ass. While clubs like Swansea, Watford or Bournemouth kept breaking their transfer records, the best SAFC could come up with was spending £13.6 million (second-highest bid in club’s history, after signing Steven Fletcher in 2012) on Didier N’Dong from Lorient. And although I have a lot of sympathy for the Gabonese midfielder – his stats are abysmal when compared to M’Vila’s. Last season, on the average, the Frenchman was winning twice as many tackles as his successor and four times more headers. His other numbers are also way superior – and he wanted to stay in England!

Instead of him, we now get to experience the trio of Ndong, Jack Rodwell and Paddy McNair. And even though clubs like Sunderland are usually good at recycling bigger-team rejects (see: Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Fabio Borini, Patrick van Aanholt), this time, they’ve failed to assemble a midfield three that could keep them above the relegation zone. McNair, a natural centre-back who’s covering ad hoc for Kirchhoff’s vacant DM spot, used to be a fifth- or maybe sixth CB choice at Manchester United for a reason. And former wonderkid Rodwell? So far, none of his 33 Premier League starts in Sunderland’s shirt has ended up with Black Cats’ victory. Let’s just leave it at that…

 

In view of all midfield problems, the best Mackems can offer offensively are Patrick van Aanholt and Duncan Watmore rallying the left wing and whipping crosses to Jermain Defoe. The Dutch wing-back has been easily amongst the brightest spots of his team ever since he joined it in 2014. He’s quick, decisive, passes well, can score a goal or two when needed and, most importantly, performs on a consistent level. Even with most recent medical concerns about his heart, he’s still head and shoulders above both his right-back counterpart Javier Manquillo and his potential back-up, Jason Denayer. And Watmore, though a bit Don-Quixotesque and ineffectual, at least poses some problems to the opposition.

When Arsenal arrived to Stadium of Light this weekend, those two played fairly well, as compared to the rest of the team. However, the game was a culmination of all shortcomings, misfortunes and just poor footballing ability from the bottom-of-the-table hosts. The first goal, when Sánchez outjumped a 13 cm taller defender and put it away past helpless Pickford more or less explained the direction which this game will take. An unexpected gift of a loose ball that fell for Watmore has allowed Moyes’ team to earn a penalty and equalize, but once the second half kicked off, it was nothing short of a carnage. After all, Giroud scored from his first two touches on the ball – a feat almost unheard of in professional football. But in a slapstick match like this, anything is possible.

It’s actually remarkable that Sunderland have scored a goal. They’ve only attempted three shots on course of 90 minutes; they’ve failed to win a single corner. Their passing ability stopped at 72% and it was worse than the same stat produced by six Championship sides that played last weekend. The big picture is just as grim: only Hull and Burnley goalkeepers are facing more shots per game than Jordan Pickford; at the same time, Black Cats are averaging only 2.4 shots on target per game – all despite having very prolific centre-forward in form of Jermain Defoe. The longest they’ve been this season without conceding is 135 minutes – more than three times less than currently the clutchest defensive team, Chelsea. Where do you go from there?

“Hello, Ellis Short? Big Sam here. Heard there was a job opening in your company, right?”

According to bookmakers – 1/4 or 1/3 odds all over the board – the answer is: Championship. But this situation is not much different than the last two seasons, when Mackems kept sacking their managers in the middle of the campaign and then somehow pulled themselves out of the deepest, darkest pits of despair. However, one thing has changed. This time around, Moyes’ lads don’t have a fellow rivals, Newcastle, to feed off from in the derby. For the last couple of years, it was Magpies, who donated win after win after win to their sworn enemies, each time preserving their Premier League status in the process. Now that they’re down, there are no easy customers out there anymore.

All this pressure must be hitting David Moyes really hard. In the past three years, the Scottish manager went from being Alex Ferguson’s heir apparent to EPL relegation dogfight – something which his old, solid Everton side has hardly ever experienced. Today, he’s as desperate as a manager could be: sending not 100% fit Adnan Januzaj on the pitch against Arsenal; admitting to spending Saturday nights in a darkroom; getting sent back to the stands during the League Cup game against Southampton… Should he go? Well, the man is trying to build a team from two or three Premier League-quality players and multiple pieces of deadwood. If things are bad – his effort certainly didn’t make them much worse, that’s for sure.

Neither did the terrific supporters that keep coming to Stadium of Light. Despite their clubs’ slump, despite heartbreaking, late defeats to Man City and West Ham, despite an infuriating decision to end M’Vila pursuit – recently, 1900 people showed up at the other end of the country in order to cheer for the lads in their Cup game against Southampton. The fact that Saints once humped Mackems 8-0 there did not matter either: that core of 100% devoted fans is still out there. On Saturday, once they saw that their beloved team is completely inept at dealing with crosses, they started singing “We are fucking shit… We are fucking shit… We’re fucking shiiit!” Sadly – they were right all the way.

Big Sam Allardyce, the corrupt ex-England manager… Is he really SAFC’s last and only hope?

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