Wednesday night, Chelsea take a trip to the far north to visit the Stadium of Light and Sunderland in a match in which both teams should be looking for points. Secondary to the points chase is the meeting with another former Chelsea player turned manager in Gus Poyet. This is the first meeting between the Blues and a Poyet-coached side where the Uruguayan has been the main man in the dugout. However, reunions and well wishes will have to wait because Chelsea need the 3 points as much as Sunderland do.
After the win over Southampton at the weekend, Chelsea find themselves in sole possession of second place and are just 4 points behind Arsenal. Chelsea supporters should take heart in the fact that Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have not been firing on all cylinders, yet are within touching distance of an Arsenal team that are in the best form that they’ve been in many a year. Somewhere along the line, every team will find a bump, but the Blues have proven that they can grind out the results, even while looking for an identity in Mourinho’s second spell.
For Sunderland, their 8 points from 13 matches is worrisome, particularly after Crystal Palace beat West Ham and Cardiff have picked up bonus points against the likes of Manchester City and Swansea along the way. Poyet has changed the pulse of the side since taking over from Paolo Di Canio, restoring some of the harmony that had perhaps been lost under the Italian. However, the same problems still remain with the side still remaining poor with their decision-making and profligate in front of goal. In order to turn the fortunes around, goals must be scored, and Sunderland have the second-lowest goals scored total in the League.
Sunderland have a complete identity crisis.
I mentioned in the opening that Chelsea have an identity crisis, but Sunderland’s problems with their identity go much deeper. Under Di Canio, Sunderland played a very aggressive style of football that was a bit direct, but relied on passion, strength, and gusto to carry them through a match. That clearly didn’t work because there were many times that you watched and wondered what on earth Sunderland were really trying to achieve. Sometimes it looked as if they were just playing with no real direction or purpose.
After the sacking of Di Canio, you couldn’t have picked a more polar opposite manager stylistically, but at the end of the day, he’s probably the right choice. Poyet’s sides that he’s managed have been noted for their ability to play the ball on the floor with great passing and movement. His Brighton side largely overachieved during his tenure, and nobody could argue that they didn’t play some of the most attractive football in their time in League One and the Championship.
Poyet’s challenge is to change the identity of the club, which was largely non-existent under Di Canio and transform it into a side that are capable of playing a style that can trouble the bigger sides. Whether he can achieve that remains to be seen, but the results have been better since he took over, and the performances even when the results haven’t come have been better. The real problem with analysing them is that you’re really not sure what you’re going to get; the side that beat Southampton in the League Cup and then beat City 1-0 or the side that looked dire against Hull City and limped to a 1-0 defeat.
Where do the goals come from Sunderland?
Last season, Sunderland largely relied on the goal-scoring prowess of Steven Fletcher to carry them to safety. They were cruising along safely out of the relegation zone until his injury, and then all of a sudden, they were sucked into the dogfight. This season, he’s failed to replicate that goal-scoring record of the start of last season and the players expected to ease his burden of scoring goals have failed to deliver on their promise.
To aid in the scoring of goals, U.S. international Jozy Altidore was purchased from AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch league, having compiled a total of 51 goals in all competitions over two seasons with the club. However, we’ve seen how players who excel in the Eredivisie at scoring fail to replicate that success in the Premier League, and so far, Altidore has netted just once since the start of the season. Adding to those woes is the fact that Connor Wickham was sent on loan, despite playing well at the tail end of the season, and Fabio Borini has had nearly the same success at scoring for Sunderland as he did at Liverpool. The fact that they don’t have one successful striker is a bit of a concern because all three of the above mentioned players have different styles, the fact remains that they all have a bugaboo about finding the net consistently.
Sunderland’s main threats come from the wide areas and the organisation through the middle.
If the strike force is their main weakness, Sunderland’s main strength is a combative midfield that aren’t afraid to stick a boot in (hence the red cards lately) and their wingers who can create chances for themselves and others.
If you look at their center midfielders, they do have quite a bit of steel and ball-winning ability, especially in Jack Colback and Craig Gardner. What they don’t have in the center is a lot of creativity. But when you look at their wide men in Sebastian Larsson, Emanuele Giaccherini, and Adam Johnson, their creativity all comes from out wide. The midfielders are there to simply plug space, win the ball, and provide energy, and the wingers create the chances and in lieu of strikers scoring, provide the goals. It’s no surprise that those three players have combined to score 5 of the 16 total goals that Sunderland have scored in all competitions this season. Plus, add in that Gardner has chipped in with 2 goals, and you’ll see that their midfield and wingers have accounted for over 1/3 of their goals scored.
If that doesn’t say, “stop the wingers and the late runs,” I don’t know what does.
Their center backs stay organized, but they are a slow group and are prone to quick players creating chances.
Any back four that features John O’Shea, Phil Bardsley, and Wes Brown as three of your four first-choice defenders is going to scream “slow.” When all three were at United, they weren’t the paciest group. Now add a number of years, and they haven’t gotten any faster. They do stay nice and compact, but it’s the quickness to recover that’s lacking, and they have to sell out defensively sometimes to account for their lack of pace.
The best evidence is that 1-0 victory over City because, to be frank, City let them off the hook. The fact is that City created 24 shots, hitting the target only 4 times, and finding as many creative ways to fire wide and high as I’ve seen in a long time. To say that Sunderland hung on for that victory would be an understatement, but it does show that a group of quick players can give them a lot of trouble.
It doesn’t get any easier against us, but the chances have to be taken. Even with Oscar out, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, et al, have the ability to create chances with their quickness, but they must do so with a bit of tempo. Too often, the passing is pretty, but the ball doesn’t move fast enough. You must make them move around to open the space. If you open it, they don’t always recover quickly enough to stop you. If there is one criticism about this year’s Chelsea, it’s that the ball doesn’t move fast enough, especially given the technical abilities of the players.
Jose Mourinho strikes again!
Let’s face it. Against Southampton, the Blues were thoroughly and completely bamboozled by the Saints for the first 45 minutes. Yes, the goal was a gift from a mistake by Michael Essien, but after that goal, Southampton had no real impetus to attack with any real vigour. The way they were able to press high, play offside, deny time and space in midfield, and play out of the back gave us problems, and the way we were playing, we wouldn’t have scored on them in the near future. However, Mourinho’s tactical switch worked wonders and was the right solution, even if it was a very brave one. However, rather than focus on the actual effect of the change, I’m going to look at the big picture of what that represents to the team.
The one thing you can’t ever say about Mourinho is that he’s not a problem solver and he’s not reactive enough to the match. If you compare him to two of his protégés, Andre Villas-Boas and Brendan Rodgers, you can see a clear difference. When plan A fails for those two, many times they cannot work out the proper way to solve the problems that the opposition present. Mourinho can, though sometimes it doesn’t always work.
However, the larger picture is the ability of the players to react to the change and make the stylistic changes needed to affect the match. By that, I mean the fact that when asked to play more direct and less “pretty,” the 11 on the pitch were able to make that change as a unit. It’s one of the things that I think had been keeping one or two players out of the first 11 despite the talent to be there. Some players are like robots that play a specific way based on instinct and repetition. They have a hard time changing their style because it’s drilled into them that you play a specific way. If you look at teams like Barcelona now, it’s clear that they have one way to play and when the pieces aren’t all firing, they can’t fix it because it’s like they don’t know how to do it.
To me, that’s what Mourinho’s teams have always have shared; their manager’s reactive abilities that allows them to adapt to any style of play, even in the middle of the match, depending on what problems the opposition present and what solutions are needed. It’s becoming clear that the players are starting to figure this out, and it may mean that players like Juan Mata, who I think was guilty of being too “robotic” at times, might start to find their way back into the side, and the team gets closer to the vision of the old, ruthless Mourinho way.