With the Black Cats now safe from relegation, Michael Cox ponders what caused their spectacular turnaround...
It’s unquestionably a case of chicken and egg, but Sunderland’s great escape from the Premier League drop zone is partly because Gus Poyet has fielded a consistent starting XI over the last month.
Indeed, the midweek victory over West Brom was the fifth consecutive game where Poyet has named the same side – a feat no other Premier League team will match this season – and the fifth consecutive game where Sunderland collected a positive result. Following a draw away at Manchester City, four victories on the bounce have seen them leapfrog Cardiff, Fulham, Norwich, West Brom, Hull and Aston Villa, and into 14th place.
Although the starting XI has been consistent, Sunderland’s players have taken it in turns to provide the key contributions. From goalkeeper to centre-forward, the most impressive thing is the collective improvement in Sunderland’s play, and while Connor Wickham has received most of the plaudits, various players deserve great praise for hauling Poyet’s side out of danger.
The first positive result in the recent run was actually the only draw. Sunderland boast an excellent recent record against Manchester City, winning their last three meetings at the Stadium of Light and causing the current Premier League leaders real problems in this season’s Capital One Cup final, too. But few expected them to collect anything at the Etihad.
For once, it was actually a substitute who proved crucial. Emanuele Giaccherini was introduced in the second half and provided the two key passes of the match, both for Wickham. One rounded off a swift counter-attack, the other was a fine cross – they created Wickham’s only two chances of the game. It seemed highly unlikely that the Giaccherini-Wickham combination would come to Sunderland’s rescue, but it proved something of a turning point.
In the next match, a stunning 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the star performer was arguably Sunderland’s best performer from the season overall. Vito Mannone has proved a fine replacement for Simon Mignolet, and made a string of fine stops in this unlikely victory – it’s not often a side gets 15 shots on target but only scores one goal, and this was the major reason for Sunderland’s shock win.
The next week, Fabio Borini took the plaudits. Sometimes used up front under Poyet, as he was in the Capital One Cup final where he opened the scoring, Borini’s versatility means he’s comfortable on either flank. He showed that in the crucial 4-0 victory over Cardiff in a true relegation six-pointer, tirelessly working the channels and creating no fewer than five chances, including the assist for the third goal, scored by Giaccherini.
In the 1-0 win at Old Trafford, the two heroes were two ex-Manchester United players. Wes Brown and John O’Shea were seen as reliable, versatile utility men at Old Trafford, and arguably took too long to adjust to the demands of being the leaders in the dressing room at Sunderland.
Back on familiar soil, they both turned in excellent, old-school centre-back performances in a battling 1-0 win – had they been this solid all season, Sunderland wouldn’t have needed a great escape in the first place.
Then, in the 2-0 win over West Brom, it was the midfield that stole the show – the tireless Jack Colback put Sunderland ahead, but his midfield colleagues Lee Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson were also crucial, scrapping in midfield and constantly recovering the ball as West Brom attempted to make a comeback. This victory confirmed Sunderland’s survival.
Sunderland seem to spend every summer signing a plethora of players, and therefore their starting XI varies wildly from one year to the next. This might happen again – a few contracts are up, and Borini will return to Liverpool. But it’s difficult to see many of these players being poached by bigger clubs – and therefore Poyet might look to keep this starting XI intact for the start of next season.