With the 2012-13 English Premier League season on the horizon, Tezini’s crew of soccer experts is here to get you ready for all the cracking finishes, devilish challenges and unforgettable drama. Over the next two weeks, we’ll give each club its proper due in a free-flowing roundtable discussion. We continue with Sunderland.
AJ: Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Sunderland is a cesspool in every way and its football club is inferior to Newcastle’s United in every way imaginable and in innumerable ways I haven’t. OK, now that I’ve done what’s necessary to retain card-carrying membership in the Toon Army, I think I can talk about this team rationally.
The Black Cats, I must admit, are a bit of an enigma to me. They surrendered five fewer goals than Newcastle did last season — they were the sixth most stingy unit in the entire Premier League — and yet I look at their backline, with Manyoo castoffs and Titus Shambles and I’m confused as to how they did it. I look at their ability to attack, and I’m impressed. They had Nicky Bendtner, Ji-Dong Won, Connor Wickham, Stephane Sessegnon, Seb Larsson and the immensely likeable Jack Colback last season, and yet they managed only 45 goals, the seventh fewest in the Prem. Their apparent weakness is a strength, and vice versa. So in that sense, I’m not quite sure how to start breaking them down, since everything I think I know about them seems to be canceled out by what they, you know, actually did on the pitch last season.
One thing I can say for certain: this looks like a frightfully shallow squad. There are only 22 senior players listed on Wikipedia, and few of them are reliable for a variety of reasons. They will need some depth to make it through this year without struggling like they did for big patches of 2011-12. But if they get it, they could do just fine.
Mark: Oh what might have been for the Black Cats. That 2010-11 campaign must seem like eons ago on Wearside, when Darren Bent was doing his Darren Bent thing, Danny Welbeck was just a gleam in all our eyes, and Sunderland were challenging, hilariously, for a spot in Europe before slumping to a still-respectable 10th place finish. Gone are Bent and over is the short-lived Asamoah Gyan experiment; Welbeck is scoring back-heeled goals in the Euros and looking like Wayne Rooney’s oasis, and “Nikky” Bendtner — he of the €100,000 fine for sponsored underwear and annoying ability to score only against Portugal — seems unlikely to return as well after a Bendtner-ish campaign for them last year. There are some pieces left though, I think; Sessegnon was an absolute revelation last season, and I think Sunderland should count themselves lucky that he didn’t join a squad like Arsenal this offseason. [Ed. Note: The transfer window hasn't shut yet, of course.] Seb Larsson provides serviceable crosses and is a threat to shoot from distance. And I think much of the surprising defensive prowess may be due to Simon Mignolet, who was more than serviceable in goal for them.
On the other hand, Lee Cattermole is good for about 11 yellow cards a season, and this team just isn’t very good at passing or keeping possession of the ball (though I do remember a few moments in which they were decent at getting the ball back off a counter-attack last year). John O’Shea and Wes Brown are probably not going to take you to the promised land, and Titus Bramble just cannot play out of his gourd for much longer. What you’re going to see out of this team is a lot of long balls and a lot of stupid-but-not-rash fouls from everyone except Cattermole, and I’m pretty bearish on how they’re going to score enough goals to keep up. Unless they grab Steven Fletcher from recently-relegated Wolves (which seems to be a possible scenario), I have a feeling you’re going to see this team regress back to the sum of its parts in a big way. All that said, Martin O’Neill isn’t managerial chopped liver; the man knew how to win at Celtic and Aston Villa, and steered them to a fine second half last term.
So, basically, after thinking about this for upwards of 20 minutes, I realize, fundamentally I do not have my finger on the pulse of Sunderland AFC. So I’m virtually no help.
Sam: There’s only one word to describe Sunderland: erratic. This is a team that is really bad away from home, but somehow manages to pick up results again Man City (twice) and the Ghost of Liverpool. This is the same team that lost to Brighton and Hove Albion in the League Cup, dropped a game to Wigan at home midseason, lost to Blackburn and drew against Wolves in the run-in.
I have two theories for why this is.
- Lee Cattermole is the dirtiest player in the Prem.
- Their offensive attack is completely based on Sessegnon because their striker situation is so muddled.
My first point is pretty straightforward. Cattermole is suspended constantly, good for one or two red cards a year and a yellow every few games and that’s coupled with the fact that the rest of the team isn’t exactly pulling out of challenges for such a short squad (they accumulated four red cards in total in 2011-12). This is probably what led to them being held scoreless in 13 games last year, only two back of the “leaders” in this category, Aston Villa and Swansea.
Secondly, Seessegnon is a direct, dangerous player who truly shined last year after struggling a little bit in his first half-season in the Premiership. The problem is, they have no continuity at striker, and none of their strikers have truly asserted themselves, due to injury (Wickham), douchebaggery (Bendtner), or youth (Ji-Dong/Wickham). This phenomenon and the subsequent defensive pressure on Stephane, coupled with the fact that they love to play boot-and-scoot, sometimes has the effect of taking him out of the game. One need look no farther than their end-of-season form (two wins from 12 games) to see how things fell apart for them.
If not for the return of Wickham (whom I love) and the presence of Sessegnon and Larsson in particular, I would think that this team is just erratic enough to be in the relegation zone.
All that being said, Sunderland usually makes a move in the transfer market (no Carlos Cuellar does not count), so I’ll be interested to see if they can shore up any part of their team that way.
Mark: The other, fairly obvious, thing to mention is that when Lee Cattermole is suspended, Lee Cattermole is not allowed to be on the pitch. I mention this because for all the handwringing about how nasty he is, he’s actually quite good in the spine of that team. Without him, Sunderland’s ability to win the ball back is completely compromised, a bad omen for a team that doesn’t tend to have a lot of organized build-up in the first place.
AJ: Mark and Sam — gingers of this group — shouldn’t you guys have more to say about Jack Colback?
I’d argue he was the revelation last season; Sessegnon was more of a mehvelation. AMIRITE?
Mark: Everytime I see Jack Colback get fouled, it reminds me of middle school. That’s pretty much all I have to say about Jack Colback.
Ben: I’ve fouled you before. It felt real good.