Inside the Opposition: Sunderland

After back-to-back home games that brought about 12 goals, we’re off to Wearside this weekend for a game against 19th placed Sunderland who are in a little bit of disarray (aren’t they always?).

I had a chat with Craig Clark, a Sunderland fan who writes for Roker Report and occasionally appears on the Wise Men Say podcast. We discussed their manager situation, and I got the lowdown on former City underachiever Adam Johnson’s current form.

It’s seemingly been a bit chaotic again at your place again this season. What was your take on the whole Di Canio sacking?

Ordinarily, if a manager keeps a team up and is then only given five games at the start of the following season to implement his ideas, you’d think his sacking was a damning indictment of short termism in modern football; in Di Canio’s case, however, it was absolutely the right decision. He simply had to go. His methods – and not just the widely reported poor man management – were either not up to scratch or completely outdated. His tactical approach during pre-season was seemingly abandoned, as were half of the personnel used, after our first defeat in the league. The footballing philosophy he promised never came to fruition either. He insisted on playing a high line with one of the slowest defences in the league, at times “protected” by a midfield two, which usually included one or two of the most passive footballers in any division in this country, let alone the top flight.

Despite losing all of his league games in charge this season and winning just two at the back end of last season, many supporters feel he was the fall guy for a set of players who have summarily failed to impress under a number of different bosses. However, it is Martin O’Neill who was truly let down by them. I am certain he knew they were not good enough but unlike Di Canio, he kept his counsel. Just because Di Canio was quick to tell us all about indiscipline at the club and how he was going to change it, does not mean that other, less vocal managers like O’Neill weren’t trying to either.

All in all, it was the Di Canio show. He cared more about himself than the team, club or fans. All he had was cult of personality and no real substance to back it up.

How do fans feel about the appointment of Gus Poyet? Is he the right man?

It’s interesting that earlier you said things are chaotic up here again and that in itself is part of the problem. This sense of chaos and the constant changing of managers has resulted in many supporters becoming apathetic. As such, the response to Poyet has been generally muted. Some have questioned whether he is the right appointment, others are happy to get behind him – what other choice do we have? – whilst the majority simply think he is another casualty waiting to happen. How many games before this one goes? Ten, twenty, thirty? What difference does it make? It’s not so much that Poyet himself is perceived as a bad choice as the very fact that he was being appointed is simply emblematic of how poorly run the club is from top to bottom at present.

When he was eventually appointed, it felt like those people running Sunderland were being uncreative, unimaginative and frankly taking yet another risk. I wasn’t enamoured with the appointment and felt we should have looked abroad but once I came to terms with the inevitability that he would be taking charge, I tried to look at the positives. While he was at Brighton, he had implemented a distinct philosophy of play; when you watched them, you knew what their set up was and how they’d approach games. That sort of identity is something Sunderland have lacked for years. However, there were question marks over whether the players here would be capable of playing that type of football. Strangely enough, it doesn’t look like they’ve been asked to and there has actually been a continued absence of an obvious identity on the pitch. Perhaps more worryingly than that has been Poyet’s baffling team selections and tactics, which seem to be based on leaving the very few creative players we do possess on the bench.

Do you think you’ll stay up?

After the derby I felt a faint twinge of hope that we might do, but I’ve seen this set of players – on the whole signed by Steve Bruce in his final summer at the club – pull the wool over my eyes too many times now to get carried away. Even though I tempered my optimism, it came surging back on my way back down to Hull. It was ill founded positivity though and I soon came crashing back to reality once we’d conceded the goal and had two men sent off. The spirited second half comeback with nine men was a typical, valiant attempt in the face adversity by this bunch of players. It was also typically fruitless.

Indeed, relegation has arguably been coming for the last two seasons and I think this time the aforementioned set of players will finally drag us down. It’s been a slow death of sorts.

The only chance we have is that Poyet finally starts to utilise the creative talent available to him, in the form of Giaccherini and Ki in particular. Unfortunately, much like Saturday’s attempted fightback, it could all well be too little too late.

What do you think of Adam Johnson as a player? When he was at City, I thought he was lazy and lacked end product, and I was thrilled when we got rid of him.

Your summary of him is generally accurate and sadly, after the build-up to his signing, I’d have to consider him to be a disappointment so far on Wearside. The fact that he lacked end product and work rate while he was at Manchester City is quite telling; if he didn’t have the hunger and desire to prove himself at Eastlands, where he was surrounded by world class players, then his inconsistencies were only ever going to be exacerbated surrounded by mediocrity at Sunderland.

Despite his failings, he can be a match winner on his day – as he was against City in one of our recent 1-0 victories over you at the SoL – but those days do not come around very often. That said, it was a huge mistake by Poyet to leave him out of the side against Hull City and with nine men, after coming on as a substitute, he almost grabbed us an unlikely equaliser. He’s certainly inconsistent and his work rate can leave a lot to be desired but for a club like Sunderland, his creativity and ability to score out of nothing – however infrequently – should make him an automatic first choice. While you might be well rid of him at City, it’s in part because you were able to replace him easily enough. As it stands, we have very little in the way of quality alternatives.

Who’s been your best player this season?

Is this a cruel joke? Surely you mean least terrible player? Personally, I’d go with Lee Cattermole, a player who won’t be troubling you on Sunday after picking up his customary red card on the weekend. That aberration aside – which I thought was a rather harsh sending off by the way – he has been brilliant since returning to the team at the very end of Di Canio’s reign. He’s also got form for playing brilliantly against City and will be a big miss on Sunday. One of his finest games in our shirt came in a home against you, where Cattermole was tenacious in midfield. At the end, O’Neill walked off the pitch with his arm around him, which was one of the defining images of his time at the club. This season has seen him put in performances of that ilk on a more consistent basis, but that other consistency of his, picking up red cards, means we won’t be talking about another display like that this weekend.

Who do you think will win the league?

I said Manchester City before the season began and I’m sticking with that. There are signs that things are really beginning to click at your place and I’m sure the away form will follow. The lack of cover at centre back and in the centre of midfield might be a concern but no other side in the division has the wealth of quality attacking options at your disposal, particularly in the striker department. It’ll be close this season but you should have enough, especially now there are signs of partnerships clicking all over the pitch.

Which City player do you fear the most on Sunday?

There are so many to choose from but it has to be an in form Sergio Aguero. He is one of the best forwards in the world, a joy to watch when he’s not up against your own side. His partnership with Negredo looks like it’s really beginning to flourish and up against our defence, that has to be a major concern. Without Cattermole in midfield and Colback possibly having to cover at left back for the suspended Dossena, I worry about a lack of steel in midfield. This should give the quality midfielders you have plenty of time and space to feed the Argentinian with enough chances to punish us.

Were we right to let Mancini go?

I thought it was time for Mancini to go, yes. At one time, I imagine a man of his calibre would have been more than most Manchester City fans could have dreamed of, but just like Mark Hughes before him, there comes a time when the club has outgrown the manager. I’ve followed Inter for years and despite their dominance of Serie A, he was found out time and again in the Champions League and the same happened when he managed at Eastlands. A sacking after one season of “failure” might seem unfair on the face of it, but I don’t think your owners have done an Abrahomivic here. In fact, by getting rid of him, I think they very much have their eye on the long term. Pellegrini has evidently had some teething problems but he seems to be a more astute tactician and I think over the course of the next few seasons, he will win you more league titles and have you pushing for Champions League success.

Score prediction?

Another 1-0 to us would be fantastic, but the chances of it happening are miniscule. I still think we’ll score, but only because of your leaky defence and it won’t be enough to stop you taking all three points. It’ll be another plucky performance from us but to no avail, with City winning 3-1.

Follow Craig on Twitter

Interview by Rob Pollard

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