Know Your Opponent: Sunderland, Part II

Jan Kruger

Optimism abounds on both sides of the match as I talk relegation, crap football, and Jozy Altidore with the fine folk at Roker Report.

Think Tottenham fans have got it bad this season? Try being a Sunderland fan. The Black Cats are seeking any port in a storm to try and avoid relegation to the Championship, but to do that they first have to get a result out of Monday's match against Spurs. I had a nice Q&A with Goldylad from Roker Report where we discussed such uplifting things as avoiding the drop, the Ji Dong-won "controversy," and why Jozy Altidore sucks. I also did a Q&A for Roker Report and was equally cheerful about Spurs' season.

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Uncle Menno:  Take the pulse of the Sunderland community. Are you resigned to relegation? Do you think you can still stay up? If so, who do you think you can overtake to avoid the drop?

Goldylad: It's getting increasingly hard to be positive. Our record against sides around us in the table is woeful and when you lost to both Norwich and West Ham in the space of a week, it just begins to sink in that the likelihood is that we'll be playing Championship football next year.

If we're to catch anyone then it's West Brom. They've amazingly won fewer games than us in the league, the fewest in the Premier League in fact! I've been far from convinced with Pepe Mel and they still have to come to The Stadium Of Light. Had we beaten West Ham last week I'd be fairly confident. But we didn't and I'm not.

UM: Gus Poyet was supposed to be the savior of Sunderland, but while they look like they're an improved team it doesn't seem to be enough. Do you still like Gus, even though Sunderland really hasn't turned it around?

GL:  I think Gus has done as much as, if not more than, anyone could have with the playing staff at his disposal. He's starting to be questioned about certain things for the first time though; his refusal to play Fabio Borini as a central striker and his dodgy looking January transfer business are the obvious criticisms to make.

That said, I've never witnessed a manager at Sunderland who is so tactically acute before. His ability to change the game with substitutions is unheard of up here and listening to him talk football is a pure delight. When he was appointed we had one point from seven games and got a right walloping in his first. If someone said to us fans then that we'd be four points from safety, with seven games to go, and two of the relegation rivals to play at home, then we'd have snapped their hands off.

He needs to be left alone to implement his long term plans for the club now.

UM:  What is it about Sunderland that you guys can play really well against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City, but you struggle against the teams around you in the table?  Is it motivation/desire, weariness, or something else?

If we're to catch anyone then it's West Brom. - GoldyLad, Roker Report

GL:  I think there's an instinctive reaction from players to raise their games when they play against high quality opposition, but it is much more than that in our case. The crux of Sunderland's problems this season has been our inability to break sides down. Clubs outside of the top seven or eight in the Premier League set up away from home with the primary instructions not to lose. What sides often need to combat this is some individual quality from somewhere within their ranks. We don't have enough of it and sides around us come here and normally take a point or all three.

An example of this is Man City's victory over us in the League Cup final. The first part of this question implies that you're probably aware that we've beaten City in four consecutive seasons at The Stadium Of Light. As with other top sides, we generally have the discipline to defend efficiently by blocking space in the areas their creative players like to operate. It takes something special to beat a side when they master this and none of their players had stepped up sufficiently in those league games. Now, two world class goals in that final managed to breach us unfortunately and that's often what it takes.

We're clearly better when the attacking impetus is on the opposition rather than ourselves.

UM:  Let's say you do get relegated this season. Who in your team are you resigned to losing over the summer, and who do you think you can keep ahold of? Will there be enough on the shelf to get back to the EPL in the short term?

GL:  We have eight players out of contract regardless of what division we're in. As we speak only Jack Colback and Phil Bardsley have been offered something new, with a deal for the former looking less and less likely. Should we go down, then you can add the names of loan signings Fabio Borini and Ki to the not-likely-to-be-retained list. It's all a bit ambiguous and it's impossible not to be concerned by it.

What I would say, is that playing in the second tier of English football holds no fears for Sunderland in a traditional sense. We've a bit of a reputation as a yo-yo club - just as likely to be in the Championship as the Premier League, which isn't entirely fair. Since Peter Reid took us to the modern day Premier League for the first time in 1996, we've spent only five seasons in the division below. In those seasons, we've won the league three times and reached the play-off final and semi-final in the other two. We've never finished below third.

That should carry some weight of prestige at that level when it comes to recruiting new players. I ‘effin hope so anyway!

UM:  What have you done with Jozy?! The World Cup's coming up and we Yanks need him – can you please put him back the way you found him last summer?

(If) you continue with that high line then I'd fancy Borini and Johnson to get in behind. - Goldylad, Roker Report

GL:  Jozy, Jozy, Jozy, where to begin? I'll start by saying he isn't as bad as some of our fans or the press will have you believe. But you probably know that already. I think with Jozy, he's suffered from the cultural differences that English football brings. Many Latin based strikers from around the world fail in the Premier League and it isn't simply because they're poor players, it's just done a different way here. I think it's a similar problem with Altidore.

When attacking players get close to him we see him come alive. He has a sublime return pass and its often executed with little flicks and back heels, meaning it looks great when it comes off. The problem with this is that when that's practically all you bring to the table as a player, then you'd need to almost have a team built around you; a team tailored to suit your needs specifically. Being brutally honest, he's not good enough to justify such measures being taken.

The expectations of a centre forward in Britain is to be able to win your headers, hold the ball up for any length of time until support arrives, and have good movement off the ball. That's basic forward play in its rawest form, to dominate your defender - that's street level! Now the game has moved on a lot but if any striker wants to successful in the Premier League, you need the first two qualities as a bare minimum. That is the platform for any striker, no matter how modern. If you don't tick these boxes then you need to be able to score a goal from nothing. Any half chance that comes your way needs to executed in order to compensate your lack of involvement.

Looking at that list and looking Jozy Altidore tells you all you need to know really. I really, really wanted him to do well. It just hasn't happened for him. Ultimately, if your team is rubbish then you have to be good enough to make a difference yourself. And Jozy hasn't been.

UM:  Spurs aren't exactly setting the world on fire this season either.  Who do you key in on in the Spurs side and tactically what's the best approach for Sunderland to nick a result at White Hart Lane?

GL:  What will be interesting is if you press us enough in midfield. We're pretty good at keeping the ball if the opposition allow it, deceptively so. If we do this and you continue with that high line then I'd fancy Borini and Johnson to get in behind on a couple of occasions. I think we'll stick with three centre halves and a couple of sitting midfielders in Bridcutt and Cattermole. This may help when trying to cope with Eriksen cutting in from the left at will.

Unfortunately for us, we're notoriously generous when the opposition have players who can carry the ball and in theory there' a lot of drive in your midfield. Our weak engine room is one of the main reasons as to where we are. I know Lennon has had a poor season and he's never gonna have a better chance to get in behind a left wing-back then he will on Monday. I'm worrying about that.

UM: Let's have a score prediction.

GL:  Despite all I've just said I think you'll score and we'll crumble. 3-1 to Spurs

UM:  BONUS QUESTION – The Ji Dong-won "ineligible player" story has suddenly exploded in the English media recently. (For those who aren't familiar, here's a primer.) What happened initially? Explain the penalty that Sunderland incurred.  Do you think the penalty was sufficient? Why is this suddenly becoming a story months after it happened?

GL: I think this paragraph from one of our local papers sums up what actually happened:

"They failed to adequately complete the striker's international registration after he returned from a loan spell at Augsburg, but immediately notified the Premier League, who had already included the South Korean on their own list of registered players, when their error became clear."

We were fined in January for this and the secretary who made the error was dismissed. It's a bit unrealistic to expect the club to go out of their way to be openly transparent about it. As if.

The rules are clear; this is not an offence that is punishable by point deduction. This has been presented by the national press as Sunderland having had broken the rules in an outrageous manner almost.

The actual reason it's been dug up now is because of a recent ban given to The Sun newspaper's north east correspondent. I wish I could disclose more info regarding his ban, but I'm afraid I can't.

The tip of the iceberg was when he was tipped off about the team selection prior to Liverpool when there was a significant shift in team shape and personnel. Other local journalists with this info decided to follow standard practice and keep this to themselves for the benefit of relations - he didn't - and Gus Poyet was furious. The journalist has since contacted the club's main sponsor to try and stir things up. The paper are leading a campaign against us now. It's ridiculously petty.

The Ji story was ran by two papers, including the one mentioned. I suspect they'll keep digging until the club allow them returned access.

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As much as we love the promotion/relegation system, it's awful when it happens to your team. While of course we'll all be rooting for a Spurs victory on Monday, I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Sunderland, and I wish them well. Check out The Roker Report, SB Nation's Sunderland blog, and a big, big thanks to Goldylad for taking the time to write (and then re-write after the internet ate his first responses) answers to my questions.  Give him a follow at @goldys_logic

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