Odemwingie compounds Sunderland’s fear of travelling
The hardy souls that filled their Sunderland’s ticket allocation at West Brom on Saturday afternoon were once again left empty handed, with The Baggies’ debutant striker Peter Odemwingie slotting home the only goal of the game ten minutes from the end.
A strange paradox surrounds Sunderland fans and away games. Game after game, come rain or shine, avid followers from Wearside support their heroes in their droves. And yet, game after game, those same heroes fail to reward them with little more than a miserable trek back to the north-east.
Perhaps heroes would be a false term to use. Statistics certainly suggest so; since the start of the 2001-02 season, Sunderland have played 115 away games in the Premier League, returning a paltry 13 victories.
Last Saturday some of those in the away end may take solace from how this season’s defeat at The Hawthorns was much less embarrassing than their last visit under the leadership of caretaker manager Ricky Sbragia, where a 3-0 defeat helped leave the Black Cats mired in a relegation battle until the final day of the season.
Yet this defeat will have hurt nonetheless. Steve Bruce’s summer dealings suggest that his squad is now a much stronger one than he inherited just over a year ago, and yet this performance suggested nothing of the sort.
Whilst West Brom were vibrant from the off, no doubt looking to eradicate memories of last week’s 6-0 thrashing at Stamford Bridge, Sunderland looked disjointed and wasteful throughout.
One of the positions Bruce has bolstered most during his time as Sunderland supremo is centre-half, yet worryingly it is this very position that looked weakest in the Midlands.
The latest pairing to turn out infront of young goalkeeper Simon Mignolet came in the shape of Paulo Da Silva and Titus Bramble, and neither did much to show that their partnership has any great chance of blossoming. Da Silva, imperious at the World Cup in the red and white of Paraguay, was unable to translate such form into his similar club colours, and indeed it was Bramble that was left to bail his partner out on several occassions.
Alas though, even Bramble could not be held entirely irresponsible for the winning goal. Odemwingie had already split the two defenders in the first half, poking narrowly wide of the post with a chance he really should have scored. But, in almost identical circumstances, the man signed just days earlier made no mistake when Bramble allowed him too much room to turn, slipping the ball under Mignolet and giving Roberto Di Matteo’s side their opening win of the campaign.
However, to simply focus upon Bramble and Da Silva would be harsh. In truth, Sunderland were lacking all over the pitch, with Cristian Riveros and Jordan Henderson particularly anonymous in midfield.
Furthermore, the sight of endless long balls being pumped towards Darren Bent will unnerve many of the Sunderland faithful. For much of Saturday it seemed as though despite the departure of Kenwyne Jones, resorting to route one tactics as plan B still endures.
In his post-match comments, Steve Bruce iterated that there were “no positives to take” and, aside from the minor impact substitutes Boudewijn Zenden and loanee Danny Welbeck had upon their arrivals, one would be hard-pressed to disagree.
To the fans defeat will probably have came as little surprise, but these are games Sunderland simply must look to win if they are to meet their ambitions of a top-half finish.
Bruce’s decision to play with Riveros and Henderson sitting deep and much too distant from their strikers is one coated in negativity, and one which must be rectified if his side’s dismal record on the road is to improve.
In addition, the need to replace Jones is now greater than ever. Sunderland cannot risk nullifying Bent’s threat by turning him into a target man as they did against The Baggies, whilst strike partner Fraizer Campbell looked more akin to a headless chicken than a Premier League-quality frontman.
Following a home cup tie with Colchester United and then welcoming Manchester City to the Stadium of Light, Sunderland travel to Wigan, a side who have conceded ten goals in their opening two home games. If Bruce cannot muster at least a good performance there, any remaining faith among Sunderland’s travelling legions may be lost for good.