So it was a solid if unspectacular performance against the reigning champions on Sunday. As Steve Bruce said, a little craft was missing, that final telling ball to unlock the United defence. We missed players like Andy Reid, who is now having surgery.
Given that we have one away game left this season, versus Wolves on Sunday, it gives a chance to reflect on the season away from the SSOL. The away form was generally unimpressive, but with a few highlights.
I went to an away game at Stoke in the then top league, Division 1, in 1983, where the Lads played really well. We won 1-0 with one stunning piece of attacking play that saw a great move finished by Gary Rowell. The feature of that team was an ability to kill games off, without just “parking the bus”. I use the phrase “parking the bus” to describe a totally defensive performance, like Sunderland at Old Trafford under Ricky Sbragia last season, when they very nearly pulled off a 0-0 draw, rarely crossing the halfway line.
The early-80s back four of Venison, Atkins, Chisholm and Nichol/Munro seemed to be able to just lap up pressure all day. I don’t want to romanticise the 1980s, especially the hairstyles (!) and I was there when we lost 8-0 at Watford in 1982...but with that back four we went 6 games without conceding a goal (see http://www.thestatcat.co.uk/Mseasons/MSG104.asp). The team then had at least one specialised defensive midfielder in the Colin Todd mould.
I have met a few Sunderland managers in my time, Len Ashurst, Jimmy Adamson and Peter Reid, as well as a caretaker who eventually turned the job down in 1984, Dave Merrington. The Black Cats’ manager in 1983-4, Alan Durban was dismissed by the then chairman, Tom Cowie, and in my view unfairly, for playing too defensively, especially away from home. His “mistake” was to sign two defensive midfielders, Paul Bracewell and Mark Proctor. Having said that, when Alan Durban was Stoke manager, they played out a particularly tedious 0-0 draw at Arsenal, and the Welshman was quoted as saying “if you want entertainment, go to a circus”!
The current Sunderland team have a great goalie and back four when they are all fit. The question is now, as mentioned previously, do Sunderland have a true defensive midfielder? I guess the closest we have is Lorik Cana. Jordan Henderson has great energy, but his strength is as a box-to-box player. Cattermole could certainly do the job; when playing away from home we need someone who can just sit in front of the back four to help protect them, and after winning the ball, to then set up counterattacks. If I was Steve Bruce, I would make the signing of that sort of player a priority – he could even make a cheeky bid for Owen Hargreaves…
©Lars J.S. Knutsen