Strongest Starting Line Up?

Imagine if you had the benefit of selecting from an entirely fit Sunderland squad, you’re the gaffer and you get to choose who fills the starting line-up. The choice is slightly more difficult given that Maja has decided to continue his development in warmer climes where the wine is celebrated with more enthusiasm than it is from the vineyards of County Durham. That might change the responses to that very question posed by ALS on social media a few days ago. Those results threw up a couple of surprises which are worth mentioning.

I tend to avoid trawling through the comments on Twitter; invariably it is a pantheon of diverse vitriol, however, on this occasion I took some time to digest what was being proposed in terms of a Sunderland starting XI. Does the first one mention Cattermole? Of course, it does. Why wouldn’t it after all, whilst he may have served a couple of suspension, he has contributed goals and, at times a marshalling presence in front of the back line. This could be a fairly predictable read. Then the second one doesn’t, or the third… in fact Lee Cattermole is one of the first team players omitted most often from the line-up of Sunderland fans’ most desired starting XI. Ultimately the question may be why I should be surprised by that, after all he has been called symptomatic of the rotten core at the heart of the past regime. On many occasions I have been up in arms at his lack of control as he gives away a needless foul or incensed as yet another pass goes astray. This season, however, he has actually been really good in quite a few games. There are those who think he represents the fight and determination we need and yet there are those who think that all he does is kick players and move the ball sideways.

Players divide opinion at times and I still remember people criticising Gordon Armstrong whereas others called him a players’ player. Lee Cattermole is one of those divisive figures. When The Roker End sing his name the North Stand might groan. Perhaps it is because we don’t think we need a man in the middle to break up play in this division, perhaps it is because we sometimes lack attacking creativity and Cattermole is arguably the antithesis of attacking creativity. Cattermole’s passing is a mixed bag. At times inconsistent, at times wayward, often not all that progressive. He rarely runs with the ball, perhaps knowing his limitations as a dribbling central midfielder. Our imminent signing of Leadbitter is confusing in this regard. Leadbitter is arguably more comfortable with the ball at his feet and is more willing to charge forward on occasion; but if you are paying wages to one player which would cover the entire wage bill of a number of League One squads then why sign a replacement who might only just be a little better. Add in the fact that we have a midfielder playing at right back regularly and then there is Honeyman to come back and McGeouch and Power who were signed in the summer and you might be forgiven for scratching your head. Cattermole is aggressive though and sometimes aggressive in a good way. Just like Maguire who surely is included in everyone’s starting XI given he’s the King. What’s that you say? Oh… he was omitted a lot as well.

While Cattermole’s omission may have been predictable given the abundance in central midfield we have at the moment, Maguire’s regular omission from dream starting XIs was not. Now I am not going to defend Maguire, at times I bemoan his inconsistency and on days when he isn’t interested he is bordering on a liability; however this is a player who has scored six goals from midfield at a quicker rate than Gooch. Maguire is a player who provides us with the nastiness we have been missing for a long time. Maguire winds opposition up and he scores thunderblasters. Why do so many people think that he shouldn’t be in the starting XI? I have a theory about that one and it came to light as recently as the recent Checkatrade game with Man City U21. Roughly twenty minutes into the game I turned to the chap sitting next to me and said “He’s having one of his off days today”. Seconds later he was throwing his legs at a Man City player, winning the ball cleanly and setting up an attack; all in one movement. I am beginning to see the frustration with Maguire and this is it. He is a very intelligent footballer prone to moments of stupidity whilst having a propensity to rest on his laurels. If there is one thing Sunderland supporters will not stand it is seeing a player with the necessary skill and ability but not using it all the time.

As a team, inconsistency has plagued us for years. The team that loses 3-1 at home to Wolves can beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge 3-0 in the same season. Seasons have been dire year after year only to be turned around by glorious great escapes. Inconsistency has been the biggest symptom of our eventual decline. Unfortunately once we gained consistency it was the wrong type of consistency and we suffered consecutive relegations. There is little more frustrating than knowing a player can do it, but they seem to lack the touch or the spirit and for that reason I can understand why Maguire was omitted from so many teams. Contrast that with how often Watmore was included in teams. Here is a player returning from injury but is yet to produce his best form and people still prefer him to our fourth highest scorer. The difference is enthusiasm. Watmore always tries. His attitude is brilliant even though his end product does not always match his effervescence. Sunderland fans will always favour visible effort over occasional sparkle and the responses to that ALS poll bear that out with Maguire. Cattermole by contrast cannot be faulted for his will, it’s perhaps more that he is an emblem of dark days past.