“Winning ugly is the sign of champions” is probably one of the most over-used clichés in football. Its use increases dramatically towards the end of any season, when each point gained is dissected relentlessly by all involved. I’m not sure who came up with that one, but whoever it was, they were talking rubbish. Winning ugly is generally the sign of a poor team; those below a certain place in the league table win games exclusively by grinding out the result in matches that realistically could have gone either way. In Sunderland’s case, in the years since we were promoted to the Premier League in 2007 until the end of last season, I could count on one hand how many times we won convincingly. And we definitely weren’t title contenders.
Truthfully, this year’s Sunderland side find themselves in a not too dissimilar situation. The important distinction is that in previous years, we’ve ground out a handful of scrappy wins which was, at best, just enough to see us cling on to our league status. The current crop seem to be doing the same, just on a more consistent basis. Of our fifteen league wins this season, eight have come by a single goal.
I’m not having a moan here. Ultimately, if Sunderland continued as we have done so far, averaging exactly two points per game, we’d end up on 92 points. This total has been enough to earn automatic promotion in eight of the last ten League One seasons. Sunderland are in a strong position, sitting in fourth, just three points off second with games in hand on everyone around us. Yet despite threatening to do so on a couple of occasions, we are yet to hit top form. The sort of run we had at the end of the 2006/07, which saw us lose only once after the turn of the year and storm to the Championship title, has so far escaped us. But it is within reach.
Statistics show two massively contrasting sides to our season so far. Sunderland’s defence is the joint meanest in League One along with Barnsley’s, conceding just 26 times. This is of course promotion form. Despite this, Jon McLaughlin has been forced into making the fourth most saves of any goalkeeper in the league. Now I’m not going to speculate where we’d be if we didn’t have McLaughlin’s quality. That would be doom-mongering. But it’s hard not to think that if we didn’t have to rely on him as much as we do, and allowed teams fewer shots, we would, in all likelihood, have conceded even fewer goals. With the League One summit as tight as it is, those extra points could be crucial.
There is a similar argument at the opposite end of the pitch. It is well known that Sunderland have found the net in every game this season and are currently on a scoring run only matched in the top four divisions by Arsenal in 2002. Yet four teams have managed more goals than Sunderland this season, and we’ve not managed more than one in a game since a 2-1 win over Bristol Rovers in mid-December. Sunderland have the quality to have found the net against every team we’ve played this season, so why are we currently only doing it once a game? Similarly, the tightest defence in the league should be able to prevent as many shots as it currently allows.
If these two issues are addressed, then the third anomaly should sort itself out. Sunderland have lost only two games, the fewest in the division. For comparison, rivals Luton, Barnsley and Portsmouth have lost four, five and six matches respectively. However, we have also managed the joint most draws in the league, with eleven. For perspective, we share this accolade with Oxford United, who currently sit in the relegation zone. It is also the same number of draws as last season’s champions Wigan managed in the entire season in eighteen fewer games. Addressing the former two issues would go some way to ensuring that we are not just hard to beat but ensure a ruthlessness worthy of title contenders.
Sunderland might well be able to continue stumbling their way to promotion this season without hitting top form. Any fan who moans at that after the recent times this club has endured should seriously reconsider their footballing allegiances. But the fact remains that Sunderland have the quality to achieve so much more than they are right now, even if we could get by just as we are currently. If our squad can hit the form they’ve been threatening to hit at times this season on a consistent basis, then promotion is a certainty. With Sunderland emerging from the January window looking better than it entered it and a run of seemingly winnable games coming up, the pieces are in place for a final big push to see us over the line and into the Championship. Upping our game now could be the difference between last day drama or the play off lottery and clinching the title with games to spare. And being able to find that next level, is a true sign of champions.