At the centre of a relegation battle, it’s fair to say that many fans would rather back to the wall performances and gritty one goal victories over anybody in the Premier League rather than entertaining, end to end tie that ultimately end in their team falling deeper into the mess at the bottom of the league table. But after nineteen games played, whether or not you put it down to luck or narrow defeats that have impeded a club’s progression up the league table, an air of resignation and acceptance soon begins to form with often over optimistic pre-season objective modified in the wake of the situation at hand. Tactical blueprints and far-fetched attempts at implementing a different, perhaps more flowing and even expansive style of play are consequently scrapped in favour of getting back to basics to secure points over perfection on the pitch and for all the attacking flair and trickery on offer each week in the top tier of English football, Premier League matches start to echo lower league ties as the fight for survival notches up a peg or two.
Swansea City, Crystal Palace and most recently Leicester City are not only three clubs that have struggled repeatedly this season in fully moving away from the dreaded drop but with this in mind, have also taken the plunge in changing manager before it inevitably proved too late. All three sides, just like Hull City too, have been through the wars continually this season and have had to essentially wipe clear the first half of the season and start with a blank canvas; a clean state for all which has so far proven productive in their individual battles and recent success in the pitch. In many ways whilst a new manager bounce can be particularly dangerous with fewer games to play than when changing the man at the top at the start of the season, if a club can get it right then it can produce the opposite effect to sticking with a manager whose methods clearly aren’t working; a masterstroke and priceless change which has shown so often to secure top flight safety.
The fact that all managers are able to assert their individual authority by putting their own spin on things and approaching the game in their preferred way is arguably what sets the Premier League apart from several other top tiers in European football. There are no golden rules to managing in the league, no systematic tactical approaches that must be followed and certainly no rules or regulations that suggest each manager should conduct their business identically to their top flight counterparts. Guardiola, Klopp, Conté have brought a new lease of life to the league with their style of football adapted from their native countries to fit the Premier League. Likewise as Karanka and Dyche have eased into life in the league with heavily tried and tested methods that have been successful in the Championship, the uncertainty of what to expect through the appointments of Mazarri, Silva and most notably Ranieri last season have earned their weight in gold.
With such a varied group of managers and career backgrounds, all have both provided and brought something incredibly fresh and exciting to the top tier of English football through their individual styles of football; facets not only imperative for distinguishing a team from their top flight counterparts but further strengthening the diverse array of footballing identities on offer in the English game. For every predictable Tony Pulis side that look to shut up shop and sneak victories by the odd goal, Claude Puel’s swashbuckling Southampton turn up the next week and take everybody at a club by surprise. Playing fashionable football is one thing but adopting a certain style is essential.
Meanwhile both statistically and financially, modern football is a numbers game yet for the differing amounts of goals scored and conceded or even down to the amount of money spent and earned in a given transfer window, the simple fact that all squads and starting line-up’s are capped at the same number therefore means that it’s then up to a manager to organise his squad and set his side up to be in the best shape possible. Yet for Sunderland, no matter who at the helm, the Black Cats continue to find themselves at the centre of a relegation scrap season upon season. From their top flight players now managers Paolo Di Canio and Gustavo Poyet fighting fire to help Sunderland beat the drop to managerial veterans such as Dick Advocaat and Sam Allardyce brought in to ultimately help the club avoid dropping into Championship level football, some have joked the Sunderland job is a poisoned chalice for more reasons than one with the fear of relegation ever-present and perhaps even greater, year by year.
Therefore as David Moyes took charge of the club last summer following Allardyce’s sudden yet with the benefit of hindsight somewhat short-lived time spent as England manager, in spite of the usual pre-season optimism Sunderland fans still doubted their chances of survival – especially given Moyes’ brash yet in some ways realistic remarks warming club fans to prepare themselves for that very thing; a relegation scrap. Yet for a manager that worked wonders with similar, extremely limited resources at Everton to great aplomb, heading into the final quarter of the season you do have to ask why the Black Cats now find themselves in their worst Premier League position in recent years?
A mid-season change in personnel has in the past proved to be the key to staying in the Premier League but in keeping with and putting their faith in the former Manchester United and Real Sociedad boss, Sunderland fans continue to hope that their trust is eventually repaid with performances worthy of maintaining their Premier League standing. Instead however, of late, Sunderland have looked devoid of ideas and almost resigned to the fact that despite teetering on the edge for several seasons, perhaps now is the time to take the plunge down a division with the hope of coming back a much stronger forced to be reckoned with in the future. A risk worth taking some would argue for the good of the club down the line but considering Aston Villa, Blackburn and Reading’s problems in bouncing back up to the Premier League, you do wonder how much it will actually cost in sacrificing a current top flight standing and what it all will actually be worth in a decade’s time.
Undoubtedly and just like any club hovering around the bottom three, Sunderland have had their own problems on and off the pitch, not just this year but for some time now. Alongside their well-reported financial struggles behind the scenes hindering Moyes’ ability to recruit as and where necessary in both transfer windows, Sunderland’s lack of identity on the pitch should be seen not only as a contributing factor to their demise this season but also as a brave cause for concern going forward. Other than numerous players that once starred for Everton or either Manchester side several seasons ago, you can perhaps only point to the likes of Jermain Defoe or Jordan Pickford in pinpointing the club’s brightest sparks this season. Financial backing to build on the club’s current squad has clearly been an issue, but even with such an experienced group of stars that you would think that Moyes knows well from his times upon Merseyside and Greater Manchester, Sunderland repeatedly look overwhelmed by the size of the task at hand in avoiding the drop and almost resigned to dropping down a division next season.
In a tale of two cities where both Swansea and Leicester seem to have benefitted from a new manager, adapting their individual style of play with the same players is perhaps the reason for their recent good form. Crystal Palace, in the same sense as Paul Clement’s Swansea, had widespread problems in defence but in changing the style of play on the pitch to favour a much more defensive approach, both clubs have rectified their defensive issues and look to be in the sturdy road to recovery and Premier League survival. Likewise Leicester reversal to a more familiar 4-4-1-1 formation looks to have brought back the Leicester of old; minor tweaks that appear to have made a massive difference. For Sunderland, no matter what side Moyes fields however, things often continue to be the same and Sunderland continue to struggle, offering very little in terms of an individual style of play and approach to each game that sets them apart from other Premier League strugglers in the fight for survival.
As where the likes of Stoke City, West Brom and West Ham have learned how to see out narrow victories or surprise draws or conversely how Burnley and Bournemouth have shown what it takes to cause upsets against those at the top of the table, Sunderland’s setup is somewhat predictable each game. In comparison to their friends and foes at the foot of the table, where you get the sense that other teams have secondary plans in place should their first attempts do little to overcome the opposition, Sunderland often appear to be sleepwalking to relegation, drained of all the optimism they once had with an increasing lack of individual style on the pitch. And whilst there’s no doubting that there seems to truly be effort on behalf of the players who appear to put in a shift each game, it does however take more than just self-determination and vigour with a greater emphasis of all players being on board with an individual style of play, singing from the same hymn sheet as you like, when points mean more than they may have done earlier on in the season.
With all managers citing that a minimum of five victories from eleven remaining league games are needed to ensure survival, Sunderland’s chances look bleak given their upcoming fixtures and the sheer fact it’s taken Moyes’ side twenty seven games to equal such a number of victories this current season. Of course anything can happen though at this part of the season and it’s not unthinkable for Sunderland to stay up should they be able to string a number of good results together from now until the end of the season. For that to happen however, although it might not be pretty or indeed the way that many people would hope that football in the greatest chamber of the English game should be played, for Sunderland earning points in any league game must be seen as needs must and doing whatever it takes to get vital points in the board is vital. Although it may be too late to now start playing to a new, improved and exciting style that suits the majority of the Sunderland squad, Sunderland’s lack of individual style on the pitch is perhaps one of the greatest, if not the most poignant explanations to their frailties and faltering form this season. Under Moyes’ predecessors, there was a degree of unpredictability with Sunderland but nowadays many sides simply know what to expect when the Black Cats come to town.
For the good of the city, the club’s fans and the Premier League itself, hopefully Sunderland defy the growing odds stacked against them and beat the drop this season. Yet should they avoid relegation, keeping on trend with the changing styles of football on offer in the league is key if they want to make to feature on the Premier League catwalk in either AW17 or SS18.