So the home team was: 20 Westwood, 02 Bardsley, 04 Turner, 05 Brown, 11 Richardson, 16 O'Shea, 06 Cattermole, 07 Larsson, 14 Colback, 28 Sessegnon, 52 Bendtner. Wigan were represented by 26 Al Habsi, 02 Gohouri, 05 Caldwell, 23 Stam, 31 Figueroa, 04 McCarthy, 11 Moses, 14 Gomez, 19 Jones, 21 Diame, 18 Sammon – they could even afford to leave 08 Watson, 09 Di Santo, 20 Rodallega on the bench.
Defeat to a team who pre-game had won only one game this season, with an away record of W: 0 D: 1 L: 5; goals for 2, against 12 and an overall goal difference of -13 would be a disaster. And a quick word about my fellow ESPNsoccernet blogger Ned Brown - Ned, when you are at the bottom of the league, don’t slag off your opponents too much. I believe the players do read these high visibility blogs. Yes, admittedly this is the best league in the world, but you are bringing just 230 fans to the SSOL when Sunderland took over 4500 fans to Bolton...it is not a long drive.
I have been to Wigan’s home stadium, and I admire what the club has achieved in what is essentially a rugby league town. But Ned blogged about Steve Bruce as follows:
“He left Wigan to join a club willing and able to spend much more cash, hungry for improvement. Sunderland got major cash windfalls through the sales of Kenwyne Jones and Jordan Henderson, but Bruce has also spent a lot of money, has a high wage bill and has to deal with high expectations from the fans. Poor results are putting him under increasing pressure. Bruce won 32% of his Premier League games at Wigan. At Sunderland he has won only 28% so far, despite major capital outlays. Sunderland stand 15th, two points above the drop zone. Bruce’s job is under threat: a bad result this weekend could be the final straw.
Sunderland, like the Wigan team in Bruce’s time, will not be pretty to watch. It will be fight-ball, rather than football, with the ball in the air, looking for knock-ons and deflections. Strong tacking will be the order of the day. It was a successful formula at Wigan and probably will be at Sunderland, if he is given the time to persevere.”
To be fair to Ned though, he also wrote “Latics have gone nine games without a win; Sunderland have won one in their last seven. Sunderland have won only two of their Premier League games against Wigan, whereas Latics have won five. Latics have taken seven points out of fifteen at Sunderland over the past five years. So the portents suggest Latics have a decent chance of getting of getting a result against Sunderland. However, a certain amount of steel will be needed to do so. That was not evident last year when they capitulated 4-2 to an injury ravaged Sunderland team.” Sadly from a Black Cats’ point of view, that was strangely prophetic.
Today was not their day in front of goal, but Sunderland like to play good football, and are not a "meat and potatoes" team. We have great playmakers like Sessegnon and Larsson, and rather like Roberto Martinez, Bruce has good footballing principles, as well as a bit of steel when required.
There have been no major capital outlays at Sunderland, Bruce has sold for more than he has bought. Until this game we scored more goals than we have conceded this season, now it is even. We do however have the same problem as Wigan – keeping top players, especially strikers at the club, which is seen as a Northern outpost. But we won 3-0 at Chelsea just a year ago, and have played well in nearly all games this season. The problem has been how to convert that superiority into goals, without the gifted strikers Gyan and Bent upfront. Happily, Wickham and Campbell are on their way back.
The Black Cats started well, and went ahead early on. Nicklas Bendner's penchant for shooting on sight came to the fore and his shot was too hot for Wigan goalie Ali Al-Habsi to handle, he spilled in the 6-yard box. The advancing Kieran Richardson's attempted finish was blocked but Seb Larsson made no mistake. The Swede returned from suspension to continue his lethal finishing this season with a 4th strike.
The first half was largely controlled by Sunderland, with 9 shots on target, and Al-Habsi made some great saves to atone for his earlier error. However, Moses was a constant threat for Wigan who did play some neat football. On 40 min. Kieran Richardson laid the ball on for ‘goal machine” Phil Bardsley, who shot over from 6 yards. Was it just not Sunderland’s day?
A great ball by Stam was picked up by Moses at the end of the first half and his trickery resulted in a foul after being caught by Larsson, even though to quote Gary Bennett on Radio Newcastle – “he went down a bit too easily.” It seemed the slightest of touches by the Swede, but nonetheless Jordi Gomez stepped up to fire into Westwood’s bottom right hand corner.
Why do Sunderland never get penalties? This was Wigan’s 4th of the season!!! Just after half time the ball was handled by Gomez in the Wigan box, but the referee just waved away the protests.
Wigan grew in confidence after half-time, after surviving what was at times a first half onslaught. The home crowd started to get impatient and were getting on the team’s back a bit – and the game quietened down, which of course suited the visitors. Bruce brought on David Vaughan and Craig Gardner for Catts and Bardsley to improve the attacking options.
A great build-up from The Lads ended up with Colback crossing for Richardson who headed wide by the merest whisker on 77 min. The crowd was still impatient and Craig Gardner tried hard to gee up his fellow players. There was plenty of possession from the Black Cats but not much in the way of clear-cut chances.
Then disaster struck very late on – Brown messed up a Kieran Westwood clearance, the ball was intercepted by James McArthur and when the keeper challenged he squared the ball across for Franco Di Santo, who netted easily. The home fans were sickened and the game ended with boos at the final whistle, and I would bet on there being a Ferguson-like “hairdryer” in the home dressing room. To his credit, Bruce is not publicly blaming Wes Brown, who one could argue has cost the club 3 points in the last 3 games.
Credit to Wigan, though – they defended well, stuck at it when the home team were dominant, showed desire and had the energy for that late sucker punch. They made 2 of their 4 shots on target count, so it was a "disciplined away performance", but Sunderland should have been out of sight at that late stage, but when is football ever fair? On retrospect, taking a defender and a defensive midfielder off for an attacker and attacking midfielders may not have been the best move…would Cattermole have been defending the box late on?
But the hard truth is that Sunderland are again in the bottom 6 (at least at 6 PM!), and the fans, board, chairman and media have high expectations of the club. The facts are sobering – we have won just 3 games at the Stadium of Light in 2011. We have done better away from home over that period…but who are the leaders out there who will drive the team forward when times are tough? In games like this you need a Kevin Ball, an Alex Rae, a Charlie Hurley, a Beckham, a Vinny Jones, a player or two who can drive the team forward to a win when momentum is lacking.
To again quote Sunderland stalwart Gary Bennett though, the club is also a business. The CEO and club owner, Ellis Short, knows the vagaries of sport, but he also runs businesses. Defeats like this and bad runs threaten his business, this year the bad run has come early in the season. There will be tough conversations at a high level in the club about why the team is not winning the 4 games (Fulham (h) November 19; Wigan (h) November 26; Wolves (a) December 4; Blackburn (h) November 11) that we were expected at least on paper to win.
Bruce has had a tough time with injuries, he has had trouble hanging to top strikers, but unfortunately someone like Martin O’Neil is waiting around for his next job at a top club. I believe Steve Bruce can turn it around, like he has after previous poor runs, and he has a good relationship with both Short and Niall Quinn.
The perennial football question is though - if there is talk of a blame game – who is to blame, the highly paid players or the manager and his staff?
©Lars J.S. Knutsen