Fighting Spirit Could Be Key in Relegation Scrap but Sunderland Are on Back Foot

Jonathan WilsonFeatured ColumnistDecember 31, 2015

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 30:  Jermain Defoe, Adam Johnson and Yann M'Vila of Sunderland show their dejection after conceding the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Liverpool at Stadium of Light on December 30, 2015 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Stu Forster/Getty Images

For Sunderland, the only consolation is that they are not as bad as Aston Villa. They lie second bottom, four points clear of Remi Garde’s side and seven from safety. If it hadn’t been for the events of the past two seasons, when teams that have looked doomed have mounted improbable rallies, the assumption would be that the bottom two have already gone and that it’s a case of perming one from Newcastle United, Bournemouth and Norwich City to join them.

West Bromwich Albion might conceivably be dragged into the dogfight, but nobody surely thinks that Chelsea, unbeaten if unlovely in the three games since Jose Mourinho’s departure, are in serious danger of going down.

Nobody has ever recovered from a situation as bleak as Aston Villa’s. They haven’t won since the opening day of the season and haven’t looked much like doing so.

If they manage to sign Loic Remy, it might add some cutting edge—Garde is interested in signing the player, according to Sky Sports. However, it’s hard to see how he and Jordan Ayew—who, for all his faults, has probably been one of Villa’s better players this season—could play together.

If Villa are to have any hope, they have to win at Sunderland on Saturday.

Sunderland had looked to be improving under Sam Allardyce, winning three of their first six games under him and being a little unfortunate in two of the others. A run of five straight defeats, though, has plunged them back into the gloom. Two of those losses were especially depressing: The games at Chelsea and Manchester City were as good as lost within the opening 15 minutes.

Sam Allardyce has work to do.
Sam Allardyce has work to do.Scott Heppell/Associated Press

The one possible consolation is that those five games included matches against Arsenal, Chelsea, City and Liverpool—none of those are games Sunderland would necessarily expect to get anything out of. The home defeat to Watford was probably more painful but, given how Quique Sanchez Flores’ side have played this season, far from a disaster.

Allardyce may also reflect that he was unfortunate to face Chelsea immediately after Mourinho’s sacking, when the cloud of depression that had settled over the club had lifted, and that they faced City at the Etihad at a time when they were on a run of six wins out of seven at home; away, where City haven’t won in six, it might have been a different story.

But whatever excuses or mitigating factors there may be for the five successive defeats can’t disguise the fact that Sunderland have been left in a dismal position, or that they have defended abysmally at times in those games.  Allardyce has spoken of his frustration at that, particularly given how well the back three performed in the wins away at Crystal Palace and at home to Stoke, and there’s little doubt that developing a resilience is his first priority.

On each of the three occasions in which Sunderland have kept a clean sheet this season, they’ve won. Sunderland have already had a bid accepted by Lorient for Cote d’Ivoire international Lamine Kone, per the Press Association, a player Allardyce has tracked since his time at West Ham. He will arrive on Wearside for contract talks next week. At least one other signing is thought to be imminent.

Sloppy as the defending was for Christian Benteke’s winner for Liverpool against the Black Cats, there were also some signs of improvement, at least at the back, on Wednesday. The problem there was that the Reds’ pressing unsettled Sunderland to such an extent that by the end they seemed incapable of stringing two passes together in the Liverpool half.

The disaffected Jeremain Lens seemed to have decided to do away with passing altogether, mounting a series of head-down charges towards the box, culminating in his frustrated foul on Mamadou Sakho for which he might have been sent off. It would be no great surprise were he offloaded during the window.

Christian Benteke's goal felled Sunderland.
Christian Benteke's goal felled Sunderland.Scott Heppell/Associated Press

Perhaps the best way for Sunderland to consider their position is not to look at the table but to set themselves a target of 37 points, enough to survive in each of the last four seasons. That means they need 25 points from the second half of the season, which doesn’t sound so impossible. Though, that probably means a minimum of two league wins in January, a month in which they face not only Villa, but also Swansea and Bournemouth.

Already, the Tyne-Wear derby on March 19 is looking like a vital game in the relegation battle. Newcastle seem hamstrung by the problems that have dogged them persistently under Mike Ashley’s ownership. They have decent players but no leaders and nobody who is truly committed to the club.

On good days, they will win games, but on bad days, there is no spirit to battle for results. Back-to-back games against Arsenal and United at the start of January could mean any lingering positivity from the successive wins over Liverpool and Tottenham could be lost rapidly.

For Bournemouth and Norwich, the threat of relegation is simply the result of their resources. Bournemouth in particular have played some excellent football this season, despite a spate of injuries to key players, but either side, for all the excellence of their respective young managers, could find themselves overwhelmed by fatigue and the limitations of their squad.

Swansea’s situation is more baffling, particularly given how well they started the season. It seems bizarre that a club that has so prided itself on its planning should end up without a manager, sacking Garry Monk without apparently having a replacement lined up. There does seem to have been a greater doggedness about them since Monk’s departure, but the sense of uncertainty can’t be good in the long term.

Two years ago, after Sunderland survived with a run of 13 points from five games that included wins at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, their manager Gus Poyet gave a gleeful press conference in which he pointed out that nothing would ever be the same again. “It’s going to be remembered forever,” he said. “People will say in years to come that even if you’re seven points behind you can do it.”

Leicester’s surge last season seemed born of the same spirit. There can be a magnificent irrationality behind the relegation battle. That’s the spirit all the threatened sides have to try to harness. But that doesn’t alter the fact that a seven-point deficit is never an ideal place to start. And that’s why Saturday’s game against Villa is a must-win for Sunderland.