Sunderland away is fast becoming one of my least favourite trips. The Tigers record at the Stadium of Light reached Played 3, Lost 3 with a harsh drubbing at the hands of an average Sunderland team. Poor defending cost us dear after a promising opening half resulting in a defeat that looks massive on paper but is one that hopefully, PB can extract some positives from. Sunderland lined up with two of 'ours' in their red and white. Michael Turner was roundly cheered, Mr Campbell was loudly jeered.
PB sprung a slight surprise selecting Craig Fagan up front. I think every fan would probably have made their prediction of the line-up on the drive up and like us, most would have picked the system correctly and probably the defence and most of the midfield but I'd be amazed if more than 2 or 3% had selected Fagan. I can see the logic though. Altidore didn't arrive back from international duty until Friday and while Jan Venegoor of Hesselink (JVoH) has been in for almost 2 weeks, most of his team mates have been away so PB obviously selected someone he felt was comfortable with our game plan and knew what his team mates would do. I'd be critical of a lot of Fagan's performance but not PB's decision. What PB should take the blame for is our midfield, or to be more precise, the big, blundering hole where Kilbane should be. With every substitution at the SOL, our chances of getting back into the game got slimmer and slimmer as our midfield got weaker and weaker and considering it had Kilbane in it to start with, that's quiet an achievement.
It was an all new defensive unit with McShane returning and Sonko replacing Michael Turner. I have to say that overall, I felt they did a decent job. Sunderland threatened very little from open play and a lot of that was to do with the way we won the ball quickly when it came up the field, Zayatte looking particularly good winning the ball in the air and on the floor. In the first half, we defended impeccably, including Olofinjana in front, we denied them any space to create, got into tackles quickly and apart from the disastrous moment when Fagan handled for the penalty, we were well on top of set pieces.
The tone for the second half was set immediately as we stumbled out of the blocks. A quick ball found Darren Bent on our left, with Dawson (and most others) AWOL, and as Zayatte came across to cover, he slid in Campbell for a tap-in. Myhill lurched from his goal and got some combination of man and ball (probably more man than ball in truth) to earn a reprieve, the ball rolled out to the right where Sunderland were quickest to react, then went across goal to the left, where they were quickest again and then found Andy Reid back on the right. As we stood and watched, he slid the ball into the far corner. It was a horrible goal to concede, we were all at sea and to be fair to the lads in defense, there were 6 or 7 City bodies in or around the penalty area and not one of them reacted to the situation at any point. What was most disappointing was the fact that McShane had stuck to Reid like glue throughout the first half; he'd barely had a second on the ball.
The third goal came from the same source as the second, a quick ball finding Bent in space on our left. On this occasion, Zayatte had pushed up at the last moment to try and play Bent offside, not knowing that Sonko was yards behind him in the middle. Terrible positioning from the new boy and a poor decision from Zayatte. Bent was going to turn down the opportunity. He had a clear run as Sonko didn't commit to a challenge for fear of leaving Campbell alone in the middle. The last goal was a free header from a corner by Turner at the near post. It was the first time all afternoon they'd had a sniff from a set piece, I think we'd just about gone at that point.
McShane made an encouraging re-start. He did the simple things well, he marked tightly, he stopped crosses coming in and he won his headers. He was a bit too eager to win the ball at times, leading to one or two set pieces in dangerous territory. After he settled down, his distribution into Ghilas and Fagan improved and he started to put nice balls into them which they inevitably won and kept us on the front foot. Dawson had a good first half, to the point that it was hard to tell Malbranque was even playing, but in the second, he left wide open space on his line which was exploited.
Zayatte had a fine outing, he was in his best 'leaping salmon' form in the air and was rarely beaten on the floor. The problems came for us when Bent worked out to pull away from Zayatte onto Dawson. Sonko also gave a fine first impression for the most part. He and Zayatte will cope with most of the mid-level teams who don't have threat as potent as Bent. He's great in the air, quick over the ground and decisive. There was obviously an element of misunderstanding but that's to be expected, particularly when you bring in two new defenders and then everyone disappears off around the world for two weeks. I think they'll settle into a decent unit. Sonko's long throw will be useful too, once he learns a sense of direction.
Midfield is becoming a worrying issue. Olofinjana played on his own in the centre again. I'm trying not to harass Kilbane but it's difficult. He is not a central midfielder. I'm sorry, if PB thinks he is, then he's an idiot. Boateng isn't ideal at the moment but he'd be better than Kilbane if he had no legs. Boateng must play. More worrying for me was the constant weakening of the midfield as the game went on. We are so naïve that we keep turning 1-2 and 1-3 into 1-4 or 1-5. Removing Ghilas form the right to play two up fornt took away a massive presence on the right and gave Richardson free reign on their left. Then we finally take off Kilbane and we end up with Geo in the middle and Mendy on the right, which allowed them to play around us with ease. With our setup, we were dangerous. Hunt and Ghilas were heavily involved, we were playing well through Fagan and Geo was finding great positions in the 'hole'. Once we moved to 4-4-2, we killed our right hand side completely, Geo disappeared from the game and despite his faults, and we missed Fagan's movement. Olofinjana also became less effective as they dominated possession.
Hunt had another good game. His work rate is incredible and he's an effective ball winner and carrier. Olofinjana did a nice job of getting on the ball and using it. He sometimes gets himself into trouble, perhaps an over confidence in his ability, but he got himself out of it. He was well positioned in the first half and proved an effective barrier in front of the defence and a nice link between defence and our attacking players. Kilbane was barely involved. He doesn't know the position at all, he's never an option for a pass and he doesn't make challenges. His entire contribution was limited to about four headers, all misdirected. Geovanni looked great in the first half; he's really finding a groove at the moment. He's doing a fine job of picking up the ball in areas he can cause damage. He forced a good save from Gordon and delivered decent crosses. He just needs to work a bit harder on his final pass because his shooting ability draws defenders towards him and creates space.
The Front Line
Fagan and Ghilas spent the first half interchanging positions which worked really well once we'd worked out how to get the ball into them. They did a terrific job of getting in front of defenders and holding the ball up. I could see the logic in replacing Fagan, because our balls forward were becoming ragged and having someone with more presence up top looked a good idea. I cannot see the point in taking of Ghilas though, he's a terrific threat form the right. I like the link up between Altidore and Ghilas so I would've swapped Fagan for Altidore to try and get Ghilas working from him and saved JVoH for a late assault.
Fagan was his usual infuriating self. He gave away the penalty, one of 5 fouls in the first 20 minutes, most of the others being petulant and at the expense of good field position. He did a good job of holding up the ball and won the free-kick that lead to our goal but his off the ball antics distract from his performance and cost us momentum. Neither JVoH nor Altidore could get into the game at all because we'd lost our shape and forgotten how to keep the ball.
I still think the result was harsh. We spoke to some Sunderland fans after who agreed that there was very little between the teams. That does beg the question though, if we get walloped by a team like Sunderland, how will we cope with better teams? I do think there were positive signs though. Ghilas and Geovanni continue to look very lively. Olofinjana looks like he's growing into his role. Hunt is very impressive. Defensively, we have four decent individuals who'll improve once they start to gel as a unit. For the Birmingham game, we'll need a physical presence up front and Boateng MUST replace Kilbane. Otherwise, we don't look a bad side.
Ratings: Myhill 6, McShane 7, Dawson 6, Zayatte 7, Sonko 6, Olofinjana 7, Kilbane 5 (Mendy), Geovanni 7, Ghilas 7 (Altidore), Fagan 6 (Vennegoor of Hesselink), Hunt 7.