Chris Coleman almost certainly knew the size of the task that he was taking on when he became Sunderland manager back in November, but the last four months have surely been among the most frustrating of his managerial career.
When the former Wales boss took over, the Black Cats were bottom of the table, and that’s where they remain 19 games later. He has managed to produce three wins in that time, but they’ve never been out of the bottom three and have lost seven out of 11 in 2018.
Their latest defeat at home to Aston Villa epitomised their season so far. A narrow defeat at Bolton and draws with Middlesbrough and Millwall had hinted at a possible revival, but Sunderland fans were brought back to earth with an abject display against Steve Bruce’s promotion contenders, in which they gifted the visitors three goals.
There’s no disguising the perilous position in which Sunderland find themselves. The four points that lie between them and safety are effectively five, as the teams immediately outside the relegation zone – Barnsley and Hull – have a significantly better goal difference. One upside of the team’s current struggles is that if they can turn it around, they offer big potential rewards for fans who might be tempted to bet on them.
What do they need to do to survive? According to Chris Coleman, they need to win five or six of their remaining ten games to have a chance of staying up. The one thing that might help is the fact that their main relegation rivals are also struggling for points. Birmingham have lost their last six, and both Burton and Barnsley have only won twice this year.
Four of those ten games look particularly tricky. Their last two games in March are against play-off contenders Derby County and Preston North End, and it is conceivable that they could be seven or eight points adrift if they get nothing from those games. That makes the next fixture, away to QPR, crucial. Rangers have lost their last two, but they are tough to beat at Loftus Road and the Sunderland players will have to fight hard to get anything in London.
Can they show that fight? Coleman has publicly criticised his players on more than one occasion this season and fans would argue not without justification. However, he has recently claimed that he has seen an improvement in their mentality, and has been attempting to encourage a siege mentality in the squad to get them up for the battle.
If they can emerge from March with three or four points, they face a string of fixtures against sides that are currently mid-table and may not have much to play for. In particular, Coleman will target the home games against Sheffield Wednesday and Norwich, along with the crucial relegation six-pointer against Burton Albion on 21st April, but any points that they can scrape from their trips to Leeds and Reading would also be priceless.
As if expecting a side that has only won five games all season to win five out of their last ten weren’t enough, the fixture list has a final twist to make it harder still. Sunderland’s last two games are against serious play-off contenders Fulham and Championship pace-setters Wolves, who appear to be headed to the Premier League. It may be beyond this side to get anything out of those two games, so if they’re going to save themselves, they will almost certainly have to do it before the end of April.
That will require more of the desire to fight for survival than the Sunderland players showed in the games against Middlesbrough and Millwall. Above all, it will need Coleman’s charges to show the kind of desperation and commitment to defend their penalty area that Sean Dyche’s players at Burnley demonstrate on a regular basis. Sunderland have scored more goals than five of the four teams immediately above them, but they’ve also conceded 65 – the highest total in the division. In 11 games this year, they’ve let in 23. They desperately need to record some clean sheets, and if they can do that, the evidence is that they can win games.
The problems at Sunderland cannot be solved in ten matches, but by showing the kind of determination and passion on the pitch that the fans at the Stadium of Light expect, this current crop of players can lay the foundation of a revival and a better future.