The past week has seen Sunderland take four points from two games and go third in the league. However, one of the big talking points from this week has been the dismissals of Bryan Oviedo and Max Power in these matches in similar circumstances.
Fortunately, against Bradford we were able to see out the final stages of the game and take maximum points, but against Peterborough we drew when we should have won. The nature of the red cards has caused some to question the discipline of certain players, however it is more a question of gamesmanship. These red cards were both unprofessional responses to the physicality of the opposition, as opposed to one off incidents, and it is up to the players to react better in these situations.
Of course, it can hardly be a surprise teams are adopting a physical approach when playing Sunderland. When we have been allowed to get the ball down and string passes together, we’ve blown teams away. Scunthorpe and Rochdale can confirm that. In our ranks, we possess some of the most technically gifted players in the division, with quality most teams could only dream of having.
The games that we’ve struggled in are the ones where the opposition have got in our faces and been aggressive, which can sometimes spill over into outright foul play. Not being the biggest side in the division makes us particularly vulnerable to this at times, and limits the extent to which certain players, like Oviedo, can retaliate within the laws of the game.
It is clear Sunderland need to learn how to be clever in these situations. Managing personal battles within games is a skill in itself, and there are players at the club who know how to get at the opposition without getting themselves in the referee’s notebook (I’m looking at you, Chris Maguire). It takes discretion and awareness, but when utilised effectively it can win football matches.
Looking at the Bradford game, it is clearly an area certain players need to improve on. Looking at Power’s red card, had he possessed a cool head, he could have waited until Jack Payne had the ball and then retaliated. At least in that instance, he may have stayed on the pitch if the referee believed he had made a legitimate attempt to dispossess the Bradford player. Similarly, when Jerome Sinclair was kicked from behind when on the floor by Nathaniel Knight-Percival having already won the free-kick from which Jack Baldwin equalised, his lack of reaction keeps his opponent on the pitch.
To clarify, I am not advocating cheating or attempting to deceive officials, just that when Sunderland players are subjected to these tactics, they either make the referee aware of it or are able to retaliate within the laws of the game, in a way which won’t result in a suspension. This is about gamesmanship and nous, in the same way goalkeepers take longer to take goal kicks when their side is winning.
The fact of the matter is we now find ourselves without two key players for a significant spell of games for reasons well within their control. Given this is already Power’s second red card of the campaign, he will have missed an impressive seven games due to suspension by early November.
Having players of such quality unavailable, who can make the difference between a draw and a win, can play a huge role defining our season. Sunderland have already nearly half as many draws (5) as last season’s top two, Wigan and Blackburn, managed in the entirety of last season (11 and 12 respectively) with just over a quarter of the season played. A full-strength squad can push us over the line this season, but too many unnecessary suspensions could see us fall short.