Written by Ian Colgan (@Ian_Colgan):
Another weekend, another probable defeat for Sunderland, whose odds of being relegated are now 1/3, which happen to be the same as David Moyes’ odds of being the second managerial casualty of the season. In his post-match interview after being steamrolled 4-1 at home to Arsenal last weekend, Moyes appeared dazed, struggling to come to terms with what had just happened. “I certainly didn’t think we deserved to lose 4-1,” he said.
“A second-half fightback turned to dust at the Stadium of Light as Sunderland imploded,” was how Sunderland’s own official website summed it up; a strong and honest opening line from Oscar Chamberlain, who performs the grim duty of writing up the match reports for safc.com. A chronicler of disaster and anguish, Chamberlain’s job this season has been like that of a correspondent for a pro-Union gazette in 1876 sent to cover the Battle of Little Bighorn, with instructions from his editor to shadow Custer closely and try and put a positive spin on it. Except that in Chamberlain’s case, he has to repeat this task almost every week. If you were to pick up Chamberlain’s thesaurus and leaf through it, you would find sweat stains from where his thumbs and fingers have rested for too long on the pages around the words ‘collapse’, ‘defeat’ and ‘pain’, and he will be needing to open those pages many more times before the season is done.
Level with 20 minutes left, Sunderland went all to pieces, conceding three goals between the 71st and 79th minute, including two from Olivier Giroud with his first two touches of the game after coming on as a 69th minute substitute. A massive capitulation, ensuring that, unlike the previous weekend, there was not much sympathizing with Sunderland in the aftermath of this one, with even Niall Quinn likening their playing style to a “death by a thousand cuts”.
Against West Ham in the London Stadium the Saturday before, The Black Cats were actually complimented for their performance, and came very close to earning their third point from a possible 27, until Winston Reid’s contentious 94th-minute winner that condemned Moyes to another week riding the whipsaw and prompted him to wait by the tunnel entrance after the final whistle to complain to the match officials that the goal should have been ruled out for offside.
“The match official thinks it’s onside, I think it’s offside,” he said afterwards. “We should have dealt better with the corner but we still needed a decision to go our way, and it didn’t go our way.”
Not much is going Sunderland’s way these days, and it’s beginning to look like the pressure is getting on top of Moyes, who was sent off against Southampton in the League Cup for swearing at Fourth Official James Adock, and who will now be forced to watch this weekend’s game against Bournemouth from the stands.
The only positive press the club has been able to generate lately came during the week when, in a bid to strengthen the bond between players and supporters and lift spirits, Moyes took members of the first team to the local Nissan factory where they got to observe the production process, meet and greet employees, and learn the value of honest labour.
“It is important the players see what success looks like, in a work sense,” Moyes was reported as saying. “Seeing this is overwhelming. Mind-blowing. The robots, the workers, the production line. Most importantly what a workforce, showing us you need a team to get to the end goal […] We have to make the players realise where people in this part of the country work. Where our fans work — we have a lot of new players. We are building a team. They have to know where the supporters come from, where they work, the hours they work — in there from 7 til 3, three til 11 — long-night shift. Relentless work. It is where our fans come from. We are not doing very well at the moment so we have to be out there showing people we are doing the best we can.”
It probably can’t hurt. Winless in 10 league games now, and just two draws, has left Sunderland dead last – nailed to the foot of the table and needing eight points just to lift themselves out of the Relegation Zone. No clean sheets, an average of two goals per game conceded, and a dismaying minus-13 goal difference.
All depressing reading, but their late-goal problem that raised its ugly head again against West Ham, and to a certain extent against Arsenal, is one of the more interesting grave goods that might be placed in Sunderland’s casket with them if/when they go down. They’ve now dropped five points after the 85th minute; an own goal in their opening game of the season against Manchester City in the 87th minute, a late equaliser conceded against Southampton in the 85th minute, and two added-time winners – against Crystal Palace and West Ham.
“It is tight,” Danny Murphy said on Match of the Day regarding Reid’s winner, “but ultimately if you’re conceding lots of goals late in games there’s a problem.”
Sunderland are now very close to being cut adrift, with a strong argument to be made that they already have been. After this weekend, they could find themselves with an 11 point gap to bridge just to claw their way out of the bottom three. At their current rate – the worst ever start by any team to a Premier League campaign – there are not enough games left for Sunderland to even get to 10 points, and even with a dramatic turnaround the season could be past the half-way point by the time their points tally gets into double figures, and by then the gap would almost certainly be unbridgeable. Even Derby, when they went down with just 11 points in 2007/08, had six points at this stage of the season.
This adds a very real sense of urgency to the question of whether to persist with Moyes and see if he can turn things around. Reports in the last few days have suggested that Moyes will be facing his third sacking in so many years if this weekend’s game against Bournemouth ends in anything other than a Sunderland victory. Which is interesting, because a week or two ago the noise leaking out of Sunderland’s boardroom was that there is not much of an appetite right now to change the manager again so soon after hiring Moyes...and if that’s true after 2 points from 10 games, it’s hard to see why they would be thinking much differently when they have 2 points from 11 games, or 6 points from 18 games, unless they were resigned to their fate by then and their mindset had switched from Survival to Promotion, and who they could bring in to give them the best chance of coming back up as quickly as possible.
That Moyes himself could be that saviour figure is not an idea that would seem obvious to most Sunderland supporters right now, but some say that in Moyes, chairman Ellis Short believes he has his man for the long haul, hired as a contingency for the eventuality of demotion. Which would mean that Sunderland really are prepared to sit back and write this season off as a final necessary surrender act – an admission that they’ve rode their luck to a raw and bloody stump and can no longer stave off the inevitable.
There’s a strong parallel between Sunderland this season and Aston Villa last season. The main difference is that Villa had won one game by now, but the sense of doom around the club was essentially the same. Sunderland have existed on the brink of the sinkhole for the last four years, defying all odds and logic to somehow avoid the fatal backslide over the edge. From 2012/13 to 2015/16, they finished 17th, 14th, 16th, and 17th again, only once surviving by more than 3pts; a heinous drawn-out death rattle, leaving a legacy of disappointment and shame.
So Moyes had a point recently when he said “sacking me won’t solve Sunderland’s problems...” Maybe not...The problems go far deeper than Moyes, but there are a lot of people who’ve seen enough in the first 10 games of this season to be convinced that hiring him wasn’t a solution either.
A relegation with Sunderland, or a sacking before the season is over, would make it three successive failures for Moyes since leaving Everton in 2013. With each new development in his career, the more convincing the theory becomes that the Manchester United experience ruined him; 10 months of trauma and torment that shattered everything he thought he knew about himself and bent his public reputation beyond recognition.
One of the most highly regarded managers in the country when he left Everton, Moyes’ name was a byword for failure by the time he was sacked by United less than a year later. Still hugely respected in certain circles, popular opinion of him has plummeted over the last three years. His year in Spain with Real Sociedad was another mismatch that did nothing to revive his image, and now, in the North East of England, he’s made the ill-advised decision to take on the most difficult job in the league with a club that even Big Sam, using all of his powers, was only able to save by a two-point margin.
“When you're at the bottom and you're losing, [sack rumours are] going to happen. That's the world of football management,” Moyes said this week. “When you're in this as a football manager you're always going to have bad times, so if you think you come into football management and it's all good, that's far from it. These are testing times, you have to try and keep doing the right things and keep the players believing and we're trying to do that.”
Moyes is now enduring the most brutal period of his career. He’s become a tragic figure, and his prospects of finding employment with another Premier League club when he finishes at Sunderland are not good, unless he can somehow mastermind a miraculous escape or is allowed to stay long enough to oversee a promotion back into the Premier League next season.
This is the perilous crux. While either of those unlikely possibilities would go a long way towards mending his ailing reputation, failure would take his career to a low point that would have seemed unthinkable just three and a half years ago, which makes the stakes very high; tying the trajectory of his own personal career to the fortunes of Sunderland, who are probably one or two more defeats away from being written off completely.