Adam Johnson can save Sunderland’s season
Four years ago Adam Johnson was set to be England’s next big star. Manchester City paid Middlesbrough £7 million for his services during the January transfer window and later that year he scored in two Euro 2012 qualifiers for England. But he struggled to hold down a place in Roberto Mancini’s star-studded team and he moved to Sunderland in August 2012. Unfortunately, his Black Cats career has stuttered.
Under Poyet, the 26-year-old winger had started to show glimpses of his former self and ahead of Saturday’s game at Craven Cottage, Poyet challenged him to lead the team to safety. And boy did he step up. The Sunderland native bagged the first hat-trick of his career, prompting Poyet to say: “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” He was positive from the outset, seizing the opportunity to run at John Arne Riise every time he had the ball.
Even when he lost possession – only 2 of his 6 attempted dribbles were successful - he didn’t let it knock his confidence and he continued to take risks. He opened the scoring from a free-kick, curling the ball into the top corner, despite Fulham goalkeeper David Stockdale getting both hands to it. He then had the presence of mind to slide a perfectly weighted free-kick into the feet of an unmarked Ki Sung-Yueng, whose first-time shot deflected off Philippe Senderos and past Stockdale.
With the score at 2-1, he finished off a devastating counter-attack to put some daylight between Sunderland and the hosts and late on he sent Stockdale the wrong way from the spot to complete his hat-trick. If he can maintain this form he’ll keep the Black Cats in the Premier League and maybe force himself into Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad.
Fulham need to cut their losses with Berbatov
In terms of natural talent, there are few players who have more than Dimitar Berbatov. The Bulgarian’s first touch is so good you often wonder if he’s covered his boots in glue. When he’s on his game, he’s an elegant assassin, capable for ripping teams apart, without having to break sweat. But when he’s not up for it, he may as well be back in the dressing room, chugging on his favourite cigarettes.
When FFT’s Andrew Murray saw Berbatov star in Fulham’s 2-1 over West Ham, he was gushing with praise for the former Manchester United striker, but after watching his lazy, selfish performance against Sunderland I have nothing but criticism for him. Herein lies the problem – consistency. When you’re in a relegation scrap, you need your experienced, talented players to step up and lead by example – something Fulham skipper Scott Parker is doing his utmost to do. Berbatov has the nous and the skill, but he doesn’t have the heart. Instead of putting his body on the line for the cause, he strolls around the pitch, waving his arms in disgust at his team-mates’ inability to deliver perfection.
Grafting for 90 minutes has never been Berbatov’s game so it’s pointless suggesting he should change now, but in Fulham’s predicament they need a forward with the work ethic of Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters. A player willing to sacrifice himself for the team. A player who is going to give the opposition 90 minutes of hell. I’m not for one minute suggesting Walters is the answer – the Cottagers need a proven goalscorer with more talent – but someone with Walters’ work-rate is what is needed.
On Saturday, Berbatov missed 2 early chances to give Fulham the lead and then completely lost interest. With little effort, he still managed to complete 22 of his 23 passes, but he lost 4 of his 6 aerial duels, made 0 tackles and committed 4 fouls. It’s easy to understand his frustration, but rather than sulk and moan he should take more responsibility and fight. His talent is undoubted, but on this showing he isn’t the right man to rescue Fulham.
Sunderland need a trequartista
This is going to sound stupid when you consider Saturday's result, but from the press box it looked like Sunderland need a creative midfielder - someone who can play in an advanced role, behind the striker. The Black Cats won 4-1 and Poyet’s 4-3-3 worked perfectly, but let’s not forget they’re still second from bottom and they were up against a defence that had shipped 19 goals in nine games under Rene Meuleusteeen.
With the players they have, the fashionable 4-2-3-1 would work well and make them harder to score against. With Lee Cattermole and Ki in front of the back four they have a player who can destroy and a player that can pick a pass. Against Fulham Cattermole made 9 tackles – more than any other player. Ki was Sunderland’s top passer – completing 36 of his 39 exchanges. He scored one and made one. He also made 8 ball recoveries – the joint highest total on the day.
With Johnson on the right they have pace and trickery. On the left Poyet could deploy Italian international Emanuele Giaccherini, who has the ability to play on the wing or drop inside. To lead the line, they have a choice – either go with the industrious Fabio Borini, the poaching skills of Steven Fletcher or the physicality of Jozy Altidore. What they’re missing is a creative spark, buzzing around the centre of the pitch.
Craig Gardner and Sebastian Larsson have their talents, but they’re not suited to this role. Jack Colback has potential, but on Saturday he was on the periphery. Cattermole, Ki, Wes Brown and John O’Shea all made more passes than him. In the attacking third, four of his team-mates were more proactive with the ball and he didn’t create one goalscoring opportunity.
It's always good to see young English players given a chance, but Sunderland don’t have time to wait for talent to blossom – they need a solution now. Fulham’s defence were happy to step aside as the visitor’s marched through – it won’t be as easy against more organised teams in the Premier League.
...and so do Fulham
When Adel Taraabt was at school, I’m sure he was the first player to be picked in the playground. He’d get the ball, dribble around everyone and score. His classmates would have loved and hated him in equal measure for his hogging abilities.
Unfortunately, in the Premier League you can’t get away with playing for yourself. As one of Fulham’s flair players, one of Taraabt’s responsibilities is to make things happen in the final third. While Johnson tore the Cottagers apart at one end, Taraabt kept running into dead ends at the other. Parker, Sidwell, Sascha Riether, Fernando Amorebieta, Senderos and Clint Dempsey all made more passes than him. Eight players, including six team-mates, were more prolific in Sunderland’s half.
These stats are disappointing when you consider the home side had 58% of the possession. You would expect a player of his ability to be more involved. To his credit he did tee up two efforts on goal, force a save from Vito Mannone and register success with 5 of 7 attempted dribbles, but what did this all amount to? Nothing. After 63 minutes Meuleusteen had seen enough and took him off.
Fulham need a creative player they can rely on. Dempsey might not be the answer, but he’s certainly more of a team player. The American, making his first Premier League start since signing on loan from Seattle Sounders, was effective in the first half, dropping deep to collect the ball. He completed all 16 of this passes in the attacking third and managed 2 attempts on goal, both of which were off target.
Sunderland’s defence can be the foundation for survival
Brown and O’Shea are both the wrong side of 30, but what they lack in youthful exuberance they make up for in experience. The wily centre-back pairing, who played together for Manchester United, can form the foundation for Sunderland’s survival bid. As Poyet observed: “When they play together, they understand each other.”
Apart from one moment in the first half, when Taraabt skipped away from Brown and fired a shot at Mannone, the old boys were imperious. Brown was the star making a chart-topping 8 ball recoveries, 4 clearances, 2 interceptions and 1 block. This all-action display included a goal-line clearance in injury time as Fulham pushed forward late on.
His defensive partner O’Shea was constantly organising and cajoling his team-mates. Like Johnson, if this pairing can stay fit and on form, Sunderland could pull themselves clear of danger.
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