For all the missteps and mistakes of Sunderland’s recent history, one complaint appears to have reared its head more frequently than any other: effort. Or, rather, a lack of effort. Time and again, losses and bewildering on-field errors have brought about complaints that those in red and white simply do not care enough, and thus do not afford their team the effort required to obtain desirable results.
In many ways, the ubiquity of the argument has not dimmed its strength. Truthfully, far too many Sunderland players have lacked effort in recent years, an affliction plaguing both those that have been at the club for many a season and those who left almost as swiftly as they arrived.
The Black Cats have amassed just two points from the last three games. In the context of the club’s season, at a time where wins are paramount, such a return is insufficient. Sunderland need victories and they need them now.
Yet, whilst each game has been disappointing in its own way – Bolton, a loss to a relegation rival by virtue of a goalkeeping error; Middlesbrough, a game in which Sunderland led and then had to equalise not once but twice to salvage a point; Millwall, a match whereby a solid first half gave way to another poor second – what has been notable throughout these three games has been the Wearsiders’ willingness to fight.
At Bolton, Sunderland were comfortably the better side, first to every ball and beaten only by their own inadequacies. The visit of Middlesbrough was one viewed with dread by plenty beforehand, but what followed was a battling performance, one summed up by Callum McManaman’s late goal. Indeed, so up for the fight was Jake Clarke-Salter that the young defender found himself sent off for what can politely be described as an ‘overzealous’ first-half challenge.
Moreover, the trip to Millwall on Saturday showed that Chris Coleman’s side, for all their failings, might not be prepared to give up the ghost just yet. Trips to The Den are notoriously feared, primarily because of Millwall’s off-field reputation. Yet this season has seen The Lions give that fear an added impetus: prior to the weekend, they were unbeaten in their last ten at home.
So it came as something of a surprise when Coleman’s men controlled large swathes of the opening 45 minutes. A characteristically shaky start gave way to a more measured showing, and though Bryan Oviedo’s thumping opener came by way of an individual strike rather than intricate team play, it remained that the Black Cats didn’t shirk in the face of a tough away trip.
The second half was disappointing, but that appeared to be for reasons more tactical than timid. Despite Ovie Ejaria being comfortably the standout performer in the opening half, with the Liverpool loanee providing forward motion from midfield and recycling the ball with purpose, after the break Sunderland resorted to long balls in the general direction of Ashley Fletcher. This seemed strange, particularly given that Coleman himself has confirmed that Fletcher is not a target man.
One could assume that the second half at The Den was born out of players’ lack of confidence on the ball, but ‘Route One’ was so rigidly adhered to that it is impossible not to think that it was an intended strategic ploy on the part of the manager. Perhaps Coleman, knowing the squad’s mental fragility, felt that digging in provided the best path to victory. Instead, it simply invited more pressure than it relieved.
But, even allowing for the disappointing shift in tactics, it did allow us to see that this side hasn’t given up. Millwall were not totally dominant after half-time, but they still cranked it up to a level whereby previously the Sunderland defence would have buckled completely. Coleman himself acknowledged that in his post-match interview, stating, “This is a game we would have lost a few weeks ago.” After seeing David Moyes’ side give up at around this point last year, it is reassuring that the same looks unlikely to happen in the latest relegation tussle.
The caveat is that we have been here before. This is not the first time this season that the side has been imbued with a sense of purpose; indeed, it is not even the first time since Coleman arrived just over three months ago. Wins against Burton Albion, Fulham and Nottingham Forest were amassed, alongside a well-fought point at table-toppers Wolves. But then Sunderland went to Sheffield United, Cardiff City and Birmingham City and completely collapsed. The 3-3 draw at Bristol City – that ‘Miracle of Bristanbul’ – was something of a microcosm for the season since Coleman joined: one half full of energy and effort, but it only served to counterbalance the horror show of the other period.
The last three games, though lacking the win that is so sorely needed, have at least allowed for a glimmer of hope. Now two tough games arrive in the space of four days. Time to show some fight.