Dick Advocaat's side have four games left to save their Premier League skin, but Alex Keble says they've showed flashes of improvement in recent weeks...
Sunderland's direct, width-focused tactics could cause Everton serious problems on Saturday, particularly given that Roberto Martinez's mistake-ridden side are up against a team fighting for their lives and buoyed by last weekend's win over Southampton. The key battle will be on Sunderland's left flank between Jordi Gomez and Aaron Lennon.
Although grinding through the gears, the Black Cats are tentatively progressing away from the woeful statistics laid down by his predecessor; Sunderland have scored fewer goals (28), had fewer shots (10.6 per match) and created fewer chances (7.88 per match) than any other Premier League club this season.
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But since April they have become re-energised, battling with the kind of ferocity required to avoid the drop. In the last five matches they have made 56.4 defensive actions per game, up from a season average of 45. Against a team as error-prone as Everton (32 defensive mistakes with 14 leading to goals – the worst record in the division), their harassing could prove very effective.
Tactically speaking, Advocaat has simplified his players' individual roles, and instigated a long ball style focused overwhelmingly down the wings. Sunderland rarely play a pass through the centre of the pitch, and instead rely upon focused passes towards the front three, or the agile movement of Gomez on the left.
Both Sunderland penalties last weekend came from long balls, as Southampton's high line was caught out. Note how infrequently they passed the ball through the middle.
Everton's strengths are gathered largely in the centre of the pitch, with the core of Phil Jagielka, Gareth Barry and James McCarthy the most organised and efficient players in the team.
It is for this reason that they have appeared so peculiarly inconsistent; against a narrow Manchester United side (Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young cutting inside were the Red Devils' biggest threats) they were able to defend comfortably, but against Aston Villa's width they were taken apart.
Villa used Fabian Delph in a complex role that resembled both a left winger and central midfielder. Aaron Lennon struggled to cope, with Delph's flitting movement accentuating Lennon's defensive incapabilities.
Playing from the same side, Gomez could make the decisive difference this weekend in a match that could make for uncomfortable viewing for Everton supporters.