Sunderland boss must watch his words carefully

Connor Wickham in action for Sunderland against Fulham
Connor Wickham in action for Sunderland against Fulham

IT’S A DANGEROUS path for a manager to tread when he makes comments that are perceived as derogatory by supporters.

More than three years on, those “expectations” monologues of Steve Bruce are still a target for derision.

Considering Sunderland have registered a pathetic eight Premier League wins in 24 months of football at the Stadium of Light, the 40,000-odd regulars can be forgiven for the odd grumble.

Neither have Sunderland exactly set a positive tone in their last two home games after first half displays that have been mind-numbingly flat.

When those foundations are laid, it’s no wonder that the sloppy giveaway, the loose ball into touch or yet another pass backwards is not met with the most positive of reactions.

But does Gus Poyet have a point about a disconnection between team and supporters, and a need for greater patience in the stands?

Clearly something is wrong at the Stadium of Light.

It’s not a problem of Poyet’s making. It has stretched back to when Bruce was in charge.

But it’s the second time Poyet has referred to the atmosphere this month, while several players have touched on it during interviews over the course of the season.

When players are short on confidence – and there are evidently a handful currently in Sunderland’s ranks - they don’t need to be fretting over a mistake, for fear of any subsequent abuse.

In those circumstances, they will inevitably play the safer pass, rather than risk the 50-50 ball.

It’s those risky passes which Sunderland are clearly missing to take the predictability out of their laboured, stodgy build-up.

Just look at how many times Jermain Defoe - a player who likes to linger on the last man and gamble on the linesman’s flag to a ball in behind - was caught offside. Zero.

But it’s a classic catch-22. How do supporters get excited and enthusiastically back the team, when there’s precious little to get excited about?

It took Sunderland until the hour mark on Saturday before they even began to create chances against an under-strength Championship side.

Mental strength is a prerequisite for playing in this part of the world too. You cannot foster an underdog mentality playing in front of crowds this size.

It’s why so many recent Sunderland managers have looked towards those players surplus to requirements at Manchester United.

In some ways though, the effect of the crowd on the side is a redundant discussion this week.

There HAS to be a white-hot atmosphere for Saturday’s visit of Burnley; one akin to the raucousness which accompanied the wins over Cardiff and West Brom at the end of last season which secured Sunderland’s survival.

This weekend’s game is the most-important of the campaign, bar none.

After the rut Sunderland have slumped into since their Tyne-Wear derby triumph, they desperately need just one win - preferably at the Stadium of Light - to re-inject some upwards momentum into their season.

With home games against QPR and West Brom following, Sunderland must begin this crucial period on the front foot.

Inevitably, Burnley boss Sean Dyche will be instructing his players this week to contain Sunderland for the opening 20 minutes and spark frustration in the crowd.

If Poyet’s risky, perhaps antagonising, comments achieve anything positive, then it will be to create a universally supportive atmosphere against the Clarets.

However, the head coach has more to worry about than the crowd. In fact, he has much bigger concerns.

If Poyet is looking for reasons behind Sunderland’s failure to secure a much-needed confidence boost at home prior to the Burnley clash, then he has to start with his own team selection.

The decision to replace the injured Adam Johnson with Liam Bridcutt just didn’t work.

It left Sunderland with a more defensive-minded side than they had fielded at Spurs seven days earlier, with a midfield trio full of graft, but no craft, who were all largely doing the same job.

It emphatically proved that if Sunderland are to stick with this 3-5-2 system, then they need either Johnson, Emanuele Giaccherini or Ricky Alvarez operating in the hole behind the front two.

Poyet had planned to introduce either Giaccherini or Alvarez from the bench before Jack Rodwell’s sending-off, but they should have been in from the start.

Without that element of flair, it was no wonder that Defoe and Steven Fletcher were starved of service and had to go looking for the ball.

Wing-backs Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt were happy to get forward, yet they were the only outlets.

Seb Larsson and Rodwell had looked far, far better at Spurs when they were deeper and had Johnson in front of them.

Rodwell, in particular, doesn’t look anywhere near as proficient playing further forward. A series of wayward long-range efforts during that instantly forgettable first half were testament to that.

But it wasn’t just the selection which was wrong.

Sunderland were far too sluggish and sloppy on the ball to worry Fulham.

Too often, players took three or four touches, rather than moving it on first-time, which simply slowed the play up and allowed Fulham to get back in numbers.

It wasn’t until just before – and after – Rodwell’s mindless second yellow card that Sunderland finally began to up the tempo and the game became stretched.

As a result, Jones and van Aanholt started getting to the by-line and delivering some crosses.

Defoe finally became involved too – three times denied by smart saves from Fulham keeper Marcus Bettinelli.

It’s something which has to continue against Burnley.

It’s fine adopting a possession-based strategy, but there also has to be the capability of mixing it up and moving the ball quickly.

That’s a different thing entirely from the “kick and rush” under Peter Reid which Poyet keeps referencing.

On a day of FA Cup drama - where only one Premier League side triumphed in five meetings with Championship sides – it could have been much worse for Sunderland.

Hugo Rodallega’s low drive from 25 yards which crashed back against the outside of the post, with Vito Mannone beaten, at least kept Sunderland in a competition which has suddenly been blown wide-open by the elimination of four members of the top flight’s current top six.

But Sunderland’s failure to secure a place in the fifth round outright was more down to their continued inadequacies at home than any super-human effort from Fulham.

By the time Sunderland head to Craven Cottage a week tomorrow for the replay, they desperately need to have turned over a new leaf at the Stadium of Light.