It is rather ironic that the difference between Stoke City and Sunderland at the Britannia Stadium was largely Charlie Adam. Yes it is true that his over-the-top reaction helped to convince referee Kevin Friend to send off Wes Brown unjustifiably. Perhaps he deserves to be described as a cheat or much worse. But he was also arguably man-of-the-match for the victors and all but illustrates the calibre of a player the Black Cats are sadly lacking.
I have been one of the biggest critics of former head coach Paolo Di Canio. I was abhorred at his appointment on the eve of April Fool’s Day, one of the worst decisions Ellis Short has made. Perhaps the worst and he has made many, including pushing out Niall Quinn. However, the Italian firebrand was absolutely right before the season started, insisting that the team needed a real play-maker. The defeat at Stoke underlined more than ever the lack of such a creative talent.
Both teams on display were mediocre at best. Sunderland are gradually adapting to Gus Poyet's slow-paced retention strategy, trying to keep hold of the ball from the back and virtually everything going through Ki Sung-Yeung. The on-loan Korean is comfortable with the ball, in control and passing, occasionally spraying it around but limited in threading it through. Glaringly absent from midfield is the ability to open up defences or finding ways through to create chances.
My overall concern is that the style being established does not suit the squad playing in the Premiership. The league is unforgiving, especially in the need to develop attacking strategies in open play. A few novelties have been inventive from set-pieces, especially from corners that have obviously been practised in training. But the general pattern of going forward appears lost without any vision and few tactics. Even basic crossing is too often abysmal as are the deficiencies of any patterns to meet them.
The weaknesses were again highlighted by the dearth of goal opportunities created. In the whole game, the only half-chance for the Black Cats was the long through ball from Adam Johnson to Steven Fletcher, whose shot was blocked by the advancing Asmir Begović. A similar effort later in the game from Seb Larsson ended with the Croatian keeper clearing with his foot dangerously colliding into Fletcher's chest. Otherwise the very few other attempts were long-range, including a Johnson pull back to Jack Colback, whose left-footed shot on the edge of the area was deflected wide.
In contrast, Sunderland's defence was cut open when Geoff Cameron clipped a ball down the right-hand channel for Steven N’Zonzi to beat the offside trap and pulled the ball to Adam, hardly the fastest player, leaving John O'Shea in No Man's Land not for the first time this season. N’Zonzi also got behind the Black Cat's defence from a weighed through ball Peter Crouch for the second. Both goals are ominous signs, leaked by teams that are related but scored by those escaping the drop.
Yes there were positives. Heads did not drop after conceding and for the second time in consecutive away fixtures, some grit and determination was shown after losing players with red cards. Even Johnson seemed better and more-purposeful wandering more into the middle. I also hope that Phil Bardsley has finally answered his overblown critics with another tenacious performance.
Having failed to gain a single point from the likes of Fulham, Crystal Palace, Hull and now Stoke, the main worry is that Sunderland's fighting strengths are not enough, especially under Poyet's attempts to play to limited football that depends on having a few quality players. It can indeed be argued that the team again suffered such contemptible ill-fortune at hands of incompetent officials, but this only overshadows a much deeper malaise. Reliance again on sorting out under the approaching transfer window seems as though it could be too late, if not too little, with games running out.