1) A good result, achieved in deflating style
It didn’t look like it was going to be a classic. Sunderland hadn’t won on a Monday night since 2001, while the last Stoke player to score at the Stadium of Light was Carl Hoefkens in 2007, in a team that contained the likes of Darel Russell and Jonathan Fortune.
Sure enough, it wasn’t a classic. Two fairly poor sides turned up for 45 minutes apiece, each scrambling in a scrappy goal from a corner. It’ll be remembered, if at all, for Craig Gardner’s horror challenge on Charlie Adam, but nothing else. On the plus side, if safety wasn’t already secured with last weekend’s victory over Norwich, this point – only our 13th of a possible 54 away points this season – all but clinches it.
A team heading into a game on the back of a thrashing is always a bit of an unknown quantity (we picked up four points out of our next six after being drubbed 7-0 at Stamford Bridge three years ago). Sunderland were without key players like Sessegnon, Fletcher and Cattermole, but you got the feeling that Paolo Di Canio wasn’t going to let his players embarrass him again after the previous week’s drubbing at Villa Park.
Nevertheless, the Mackems looked brittle and low on confidence in the early going. Stoke’s team, barring the additions of Wilson and Whitehead for Wilkinson and Whelan, was otherwise the same one that had won its last two games and again started brightly. Just 10 minutes had elapsed when Jon Walters managed to bundle in Charlie Adam’s corner at the second attempt to give us the lead.
The goal dealt a psychological blow to the home side and we would control the first half in a way we rarely get to do away from home. Although chances were customarily thin on the ground, we kept the ball pretty well by our standards, slowed the game down, and the movement of Cameron Jerome up front forced the Black Cats to defend fairly deep. It was Jerome who had our next best chance of the half, heading Adam’s fine centre wide, while the ex-Birmingham man also managed to pull a decent ball back across the box only for Peter Crouch to not get the connection he needed.
Frustration in the Sunderland camp began to surface as both teams traded fouls and poor challenges. Whitehead’s inevitable booking was picked up early on with a cynical pull-back on Adam Johnson. Adam too got away with a couple of late tackles on James McClean. It was then that Gardner inexplicably opted to lunge in at the Scot as the two went for a 60/40 in Adam’s favour by the dugout – much to Tony Pulis’ chagrin. Going over the top of the ball and thrusting his studs into Adam’s ankle, Gardner, a dead ringer for Hank Hill’s son in King of the Hill, left referee Lee Mason with no option. That boy ain’t right.
Old pumpkinhead never needs much provocation to book Stoke players though and as the crowd bayed for blood Steven Nzonzi was yellow carded. Whitehead’s next foul in the final third was penalised with nothing more than a free kick, but you sensed we’d be lucky to maintain our one man advantage.
Nevertheless, we saw out the half comfortably, restricting Sunderland to pot shots from distance, with Johnson’s tame shot into Begovic’s arms their only notable effort of the opening period.
Unfortunately the second half was an entirely different affair. The 10 men of Sunderland, presumably given a rocket by Il Duce himself, were a different beast and soon got themselves on the front foot. We lacked the composure we’d had before the break, with Geoff Cameron, on at half time for Marc Wilson, looking particularly panicky, giving the ball away with his first two touches. Now we were the ones reduced to pot shots. A promising counter saw Jerome feed Nzonzi, who took the ball on and fired in a decent effort that was nevertheless comfortably saved by the young Belgian. When the ball was pulled back to Jerome just inside the box, he was quickly closed down, his fierce shot cannoning into John O’Shea.
The Black Cats fired a warning shot across our boughs when O Shea’s shot was cleared off the line by Whitehead, but it was only a stay of execution; three minutes later they won a corner from which O’Shea, steaming in at the far post unattended, forced home the equaliser.
The impetus was now with the hosts, although with the useless Danny Graham leading the line we were rarely in any overt danger. Johnson’s influence grew and he danced his way through a couple of times to further test our keeper. N’Diaye also began to make a greater impact in a game that our midfield, as strange as it seems to actually articulate, had previously dominated.
We had pretty much run out of ideas with 20 minutes to play. Adam, as he does, went for the spectacular having spotted Mignolet off his line but his attempted 40-yard lob was way off beam. We then took him off for Etherington, which only rendered us less potent. Jones was introduced for the anonymous Crouch, too late to make an impact. Sunderland had been galvanised by adversity while Stoke neglected to make the advantage count, settling in for a point all too readily. At least we got it.
A good result result then, as an away point in the Premier League almost invariably is. But to come away with just the one having been a goal and a man up is still slightly disappointing.
2) First half positives
After an encouraging first half, it was shaping up to be a classic away performance – score early and don’t give the home side a sniff. Having scuffed one in after 10 minutes, we saw a Stoke side that was a cut above the one we usually see on our travels. Though Sunderland were initially awful, it was still a mature and confident start to the game. Chances still came at a premium, but we had more possession than usual, and kept the ball out of the danger areas effortlessly. By the mid-point of the half we’d managed to turn the home crowd against the team, and Gardner’s dismissal was one borne of frustration as his team could not find any way into the contest.
We actually used our midfield, with Nzonzi and Whitehead completing more passes than anyone else on the park, and players like Marc Wilson and Charlie Adam also looking tidy and comfortable on the ball. Cameron Jerome led the line well, winning corners and throws in good areas with his relentless chasing, the Sunderland back line unnerved by his pace and physical presence.
On the strength of the last three games (and the seven point haul they’ve produced), we have actually looked a surprisingly balanced side. Against all the odds, the experiment with Adam in a wide role has been something of a success. The Scot has managed somehow to find space and freedom out there to ping in some dangerous balls and exert an influence, and his delivery is clearly improving as his assist from the corner underlined. I’ve read criticism of his tendency to shoot from any angle and range, but if there’s nothing else on (and there so often isn’t for us) then why not? The analogy about the lottery and buying tickets spring to mind.
Jerome and Crouch, with the former just ahead of the latter, have complemented each other quite well, and though Crouch was poor at the Stadium of Light Jerome does provide that threat on the counter and allow the option of the ball into the channels, which Adam has looked for a number of times.
In what has been, all things considered, a rather gloomy season, the first half did provide an unexpected number of reasons to be cheerful.
3) Second half negatives
Of course, all that good stuff dissipated almost as soon as the second half kicked off and we were stuck with the Stoke we’ve seen for much of the season – one that treats a football like a hand grenade, has no ideas beyond hoofing it and isn’t especially interested in winning a game that’s there to be won.
Sunderland’s own improvement from the relegation-haunted shell of a team they’d been before the break shouldn’t be overlooked as a factor in the second half’s change of complexion, as we have seen ourselves this season that a team reduced to 10 men can be stirred into action. However, it can’t go unnoticed that we didn’t appear prepared to attempt to kill the game off, nor did we look capable of doing so.
We seemed to have no idea how to play against 10 men, and while some sides might have at least toyed with the idea of going for the jugular, our counter attacks too often withered on the vine because there was simply no support for the attackers.
We became sloppy, at times presenting the ball straight to Sunderland players (something both full backs were guilty of) at others just punting the ball deep into the opposition half. We really should have created more than we did despite the home side’s fightback. Simply put, we utterly failed to adapt to deal with the Sunderland that emerged after half time.
The players should shoulder some of the blame for that, but it was painfully obvious that the manager was more than happy with a draw and wasn’t prepared, even with a numerical advantage, to risk forsaking one point to embrace the risks that come with chasing all three. And that was by no means an impossibility. While the likes of Adam Johnson started to cause problems, the mackems still looked brittle at the back and there was plenty of space to be exploited on the break had we been prepared to commit men forward.
We also waited an age to make any changes. Crouch should have been replaced before the hour mark as he’d proven totally ineffectual all evening. Either Jones should have come on or Walters moved into the hole with a winger coming on.
When we finally did throw on an attacking player after 83 minutes, we took off the only player we had who looked like creating anything in the cylindrical shape of Charlie Adam. Heaven forbid we have more than one creative presence across that first bank of four at any one time.
Such lack of ambition is the reason why so many fans have lost faith in TP.
4) Steven Nzonzi was Stoke’s top performer
Steven Nzonzi’s form is slowly but surely recovering after a moderately vicious mid-season dip, and that return continued at the Stadium of Light. The best midfielder on the pitch, the Frenchman was a study in composure, and continued to waste little even when his team mates were hot potatoing the ball back to Sunderland at a rate of knots in the second half. His short, neat passing, looking to get the ball wide where possible, was just the kind of tidiness you need from your defensive midfielders away from home, and he also showed again that accusations that he isn’t positive enough are bunk by making the most attacking third passes of any Stoke player and getting forward when permitted to test Mignolet from distance. Some sneer at a perceived lack of passing range but when you have so few players incapable of keeping the ball, especially under pressure, his value really should be appreciated.
The only problem is the sense that questions surrounding his attitude are never far away. His penchant for diving in with rash challenges that he’s never going to win is going to cost us sooner or later – that’s two weeks in a row he’s been booked for such folly. His visibly dismayed reaction to Adam’s substitution, though understandable, was also not especially advisable under a manager famed for liking things kept “in-house”.
A superior player of questionable temperament, Nzonzi is the embodiment of the paradox Pulis has struggled with in his attempts to push the team on over the past two seasons.
For all his faults, Nzonzi is surely Stoke’s outfield player of the season.
5) A worrying lack of options
As frustrating as it was to see us wait so long to make any changes, deep down I wondered if they’d really make much difference anyway. The squad looks worryingly thin; replacing Adam with Etherington only served to weaken our already wilting attacking threat, with the former West Ham man having no impact on the game whatsoever. Similarly, Kenwyne Jones came on too late to make an impact, but in truth he has done nothing since he was unfathomably dropped when bang in form around the turn of the year.
The lack of depth was further underlined by Marc Wilson’s second half absence. Wilson was one of our better players before the break, looking comfortable on the ball, using it well and starting off attacks. He was a big part of our more patient than usual showing, which well and truly vanished after half time, not least due to the Irishman’s replacement with the increasingly calamitous Cameron. Wilson still has plenty of flaws – he’s positionally suspect, he switches off at times, he doesn’t offer much going forward – and he doesn’t even want to play at full back, as he’s stated on a number of occasions. Yet this season we have missed him badly in the full back slots when he hasn’t played, such is the lack of basic quality on the ball throughout the squad.
With our two central midfielders on yellows, there was a case for withdrawing Whitehead, never the most punctual of tacklers, early in the second half. Yet we had only the wheezing ghost of Wilson Palacios to call on as back up, and so wisely opted to take our chances with Deano. This illustrated that the much-maligned Glenn Whelan, another mediocre footballer, has been another big miss.
We brought in nine players this season’s two transfer windows, but have as big a rebuilding job on our hands this summer as we’ve needed since promotion. That’s a pretty damning assessment of our business. At the season’s kick-off we dreamt of ‘reaching the next level’. Now we find ourselves needing to find a way of scrambling back up to the level we were at. Whoever the manager is come August, you get the feeling that’s going to be easier said than done.