Sunderland have thrown away points from winning positions twice on the trot. The team need to look for inspiration to dig a little deeper, and could do worse than seeing Chris Coleman’s actions last week...
So what was all that about, then?
No, not the football (but I’ll DEFINITELY get onto that). I’m talking about the fluffy white pellets of confusion that quilted the nation last week.
Twitter feeds suddenly ditched posts about Donald Trump and Catalonian independence in favour of photos from the great snowy outdoors.
Hell, it was a nice distraction, but two images from this week will stay with me for a long time: a sheep in Gilsland being dug out of a snowy pit by its farmer and Chris Coleman shovelling snow at the Stadium of Light so the team could train.
Reader, you seem like an intelligent person, so I’m not going to insult you by spelling out the similarities here... but oh my days it was powerful to see.
Coleman’s hard work all-so-nearly paid off, as I for one thought he’d actually laid his frostbitten hands on three points for the first time in over a month. But as the man himself put it:
“When you're winning 1-0, the very thing we said not to do was what we did – invited pressure.”
The Welshman’s record on that front is actually fairly respectable – before the Middlesbrough epic his Sunderland side had won every game where they’d scored first, and have still yet to lose a game after they’ve put their snouts in front.
I know it’s cliché, but a team in this position needs to turn losses into draws and draws into victories. That in mind, you’ve got to fret for The Lads who struck first against Middlesbrough and again at Millwall but only returned two points.
So what’s changed?
Put simply, the boys didn’t roll their sleeves up. Sunderland averaged 20.5 tackles per game in those earlier fixtures compared to 11.5 in the last two. They also intercepted the ball more, averaging 13.6 a match in stark contrast to 7.5 against Middlesbrough and Millwall.
Whether they had the lion’s share of possession (54.5% versus Burton) or next to nothing (33.7% versus Fulham), the Wearsiders obviously worked hard(ish) to disrupt the opposition’s rhythm. Sadly, even these redeeming features are disappearing.
Of course, a few stats don’t make or break a football team – these numbers aren’t the cause but they are absolutely the effect of something.
Maybe Cookie’s hell-bent on cutting out defensive errors? Maybe that’s what the players were practising on that icicle-ridden pitch last week – staying on their feet and not breaking position?
Maybe the players just didn’t expect to take the lead? It doesn’t happen often. Maybe the pressure of the Tees–Wear “derby” and playing at The Den was too much?
It’s too soon to tell if this is a trend, but the side needs to find the intensity of a team looking for a goal even when their aim is to prevent one.
Sunderland needs to rediscover its bite. Its edge. Its bravery. Otherwise, they’ll frost over like an abandoned sheep.
In any case, Chris, don’t you dare stop digging now.