Are Injuries Really To Blame?
Sunderland have been on a woeful run recently, something which cannot be disputed. Defeats against Stoke, Tottenham, Everton and Liverpool, followed by a truly woeful display at Man City, have left the Black Cats once again looking over their shoulders once again with defeat against West Brom on Saturday potentially pulling Sunderland into a difficult position, and although relegation seems unlikely, we are set for another season of wondering what could have been. Steve Bruce recently blamed the recent woes on relegation, but it seems clear that Bruce needs to look further if he wants to truly unmask Sunderland's issues
Firstly, I'd like to point out how disappointing it was to see Bruce make that statement. The current crop of managers seem to have developed a blame culture for their failings: the referee, the style of opposition and sheer bad luck have all been used by managers in recent times as excuses for their own failings. Bruce has often struck me as a man who is honest and level-headed, but blaming your team's woes entirely on injuries is a poor and cheap excuse. Yes, we've had a number of players injured throughout the season, but many of them have been long term: We've had to deal without Turner, Campbell & Meyler for most of the season, and we've coped well without them. In addition, the likes of Cattermole, Welbeck & Richardson are also frequent visitors to the treatment table. This does not seem like the only reason we are suddenly dropping like a stone. Yes, I cannot deny that we have had important players injured, but it's something which we had coped with well up until January. And even so, against City many key players returned from injury, with the main issue being an inexperienced midfield being outclassed by City's superstars. Bruce seemingly dropped his tactic of including either Malbranque or Zenden to add calm against a big four side, which had been working a treat so far this season.
I think Bruce must also look at his two signings in January. So far, we've picked up only a solitary point since they signed for the club. Both Sessegnon and Muntari have international pedigree, with each playing at European level, but neither has looked like the players we were promised. Sessegnon, whilst occasionally looking tricky and pacey, has contributed little barring his effort against Everton, whilst Muntari looks laboured and exhausted. Before they signed for us, they had made a grand total of 21 appearances between them, with most of them coming from the bench. It is well-known that January is a difficult time to sign players, but the club needed players who were capable of being up to match fitness instantly and slotting straight into the team, but neither Sessegnon nor Muntari have been capable so far.
I also feel Bruce has to review the way he manages the team. It seems apparent that Bruce struggles to motivate his players. This has been highlighted in particular by the woeful showings against an on paper inferior, but far more fired-up Newcastle side. The problem seems to escalate, however, when the team begins to lose consecutive games. For some reason, the team seems to change, they often looked sapped of energy an uninterested. This problem for Bruce, however, has not just started at Sunderland. His Wigan side in 2009, lying 7th in January, would win only 3 of their final 18 matches, eventually finishing in the bottom half. Last season, Sunderland went 15 games without a win having started promisingly and ended up in bottom half obscurity. And this season, the worrying trend seems to be continuing. I believe that one of the main problems is that there are too many dead certs in the team: The likes of Henderson, Cattermole, Muntari & Sessegnon have been guaranteed places when fit, and have become complacent. The best performances this season have come from players who have had to fight for their place, such as Richardson, Bardsley, and even Bramble & Gyan when they were fighting for places earlier on in the season. Bruce needs to let some players know that there is competition, and this will hopefully give them the kick they need.
West Brom has become a critical game, and with most of our injured players back, the pressure will be on Bruce to deliver and prove to the fans just how big the injury problem was.