How Big Sam’s Crystal Palace have turned things round - unlike Sunderland

Sam Allardyce
Sam Allardyce

Big Sam strode down the touchline, walking into the storm.

Moments earlier a fan had ran onto the pitch to confront his centre-half, Damien Delaney. The 35-year-old had just been rolled by Jermain Defoe, who scored the third goal of a quite remarkable goal blitz.

Now it was Allardyce’s turn to feel the heat, cries of ‘disgrace’ among other things, even one rogue shout of ‘resign’.

The Eagles boss didn’t look too peturbed.

After the game he resisted the urge to hammer his players, instead insisting that they needed to be freed of the mental strains of playing at home.

At full time the chairman went into the dressing room. A trip to Dubai, a typical mid-season Allardyce manoeuvre, was cancelled. Classic signs of a sinking ship.

Now they were level on points with Sunderland, the Black Cats just two points short of safety.

What has happened since then has been both remarkable and yet somehow predictable.

Before the win over Middlesbrough, Allardyce insisted that his players needed to listen to him. Three clean sheets, and four wins, duly followed.

Sunderland faded away. They have not scored since. How has it happened?

A false dawn?

Amid the jubilation at seeing Sunderland finally find their goal scoring groove, a suspicion lingered. Was it a one off, a false dawn?

Events since have suggested so, the Black Cats failing to find the net in two months.

What was remarkable that day was how after Lamine Kone’s opener, Palace completely lost their shape. Unnerved by the tension in the stands, the host’s full-backs began to overcommit, the defence and midfield losing their poise and trying too much with the ball.

Sunderland exploited it ruthlessly, counter-attacking with impressive poise. They were able to turn their relatively small amount of chances into goals, but it is not something they have been able to replicate.

Adnan Januzaj sparkled at Selhurst, but has created nothing since.

Didier Ndong impressed, but soon found himself inexplicably out of the team. Kone was magnificent, heading, kicking, clearing. It turned out to be a one day reprisal of last season’s exploits and nothing more.

It was a heady day for Sunderland, but hindsight had made clear the number of cracks that have been papered over.

January business takes hold

Allardyce has made Palace stronger, tighter at the back and more clinical in front of goal. As was the case last season, however, it is his January signings have turned the tide.

Lamine Kone and Jan Kirchhoff added steel to Sunderland, made them less vulnerable to the counter attack, stronger in the air, more resilient. These were areas where Crystal Palace were so vulnerable in that 4-0 defeat.

Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic have transformed that, costly but crucial additions. No longer is there an ocean of space between midfield and defence, a vulnerability through the middle.

Swansea have been boosted by Tom Carroll and Martin Olsson. Hull City turned from a one-paced, pedestrian attack into a ruthless counter-attacking force, taking an extraordinary gamble to sell Robert Snodgrass, their best player, and replace him with a battery of speedy forwards.

All have improved significantly, even if Swansea have dropped off of late.

David Moyes warned that the Black Cats’ business would not make much difference, and sadly that has proved to be the case. Bryan Oviedo was exemplary at Selhurst, but has not contributed a great amount in attack. Darron Gibson is a tidy player, but more energy was needed in midfield.

Sunderland’s flaws were not corrected, other sides were, to an extent at least.

Missed opportunities

Sunderland have also been their own worst enemy in the time since that 4-0 win.

They have missed precious opporunities against Southampton, Burnley, Watford and Leicester City.

Palace’s wins over Arsenal and Chelsea caught the eye but they also beat Boro, West Brom and Watford. Their squad is unquestionably stronger, but the Black Cats have spurned their chance to exploit that Feburary win, losing goals at crucial moments, compounded by strange selection calls and a lack of change at defining times.

Leicester’s double substitution last week, bringing on matchwinners Marc Albrighton and Islam Slimani, while the Black Cats floundered summed up two months that have been a painful reality check.

To see Big Sam roll out his legendary survival template at another side has only served to make it all the more frustrating.