For Black Cats fans, last season represented all that encompasses being a football fan. The good, the bad and the excruciating.
There was the initial consistency of a squad that appeared to be gelling together. The first eight games of the campaign saw the club labelled draw specialists, with Bruce’s side drawing an eyebrow raising 0.75 of their games. Unaccounted for in those stats however, were the hugely impressive displays in drawing with Arsenal, Liverpool and eventual champions Manchester United.
A hard fought draw against the Gunners may have yielded more than a draw before we travelled to Anfield and thoroughly outplayed the hosts for much of the game. Bruce’s side were desperately disappointed not to have got three points that day, and were again impressive a week later in a draw with United. The one nil win at home to Aston Villa saw the club move to seventh in the table, possibly less than they deserved based on early performances.
Alarm bells began to ring in some quarters when we produced a hapless display in losing 5-1 to local rivals Newcastle at St James Park. There were fears the team would be blown off course after such a humbling, but the manager galvanised his squad to stirring effect, culminating in THAT 3-0 win away to Chelsea.
Interestingly, Bruce deployment of a 4-2-3-1 formation that day produced a performance that completely outfoxed the Blues, Danny Welbeck’s runs from deep causing havoc, while Asamoah Gyan played the role of loan striker to perfection. It was a departure from Bruce’s favoured 4-4-2 formation, but one which the manager and fans could be forgiven for having faith in as the seasons’ unpredictable events unfolded.
Predictably enough, the season began to unravel after Christmas. Many have attributed this to the loss of star striker Darren Bent. Indeed before Bents departure for Aston Villa, the club had amassed a total of 34 points from twenty three games played, a figure of 1.47 points per game. The side had an average of 1.73 goals per game for this period.
Match that against the stats after Bent’s departure. Sunderland managed only another thirteen points from their remaining fifteen games, with a comparatively meagre ratio of 0.86 ppg. Allied to a goals per game ratio that dropped to 1.2 after Bent’s departure and the stats would appear to speak for themselves.
However the devil is in the detail, and for Sunderland fans, some interesting reading if we delve a little further. Bent missed three games of the campaign due to injury. One of these games was the aforementioned Chelsea match, in which Bruce so masterfully deployed his 4-2-3-1. In fact Bruce had used the system to good effect the week before, in gaining a point at White Hart Lane against Tottenham. In the other game in which Bent missed through injury, Bruce partnered Gyan with Welbeck in a flat 4-4-2, with the Black Cats running out 2-0 winners.
So clearly we WERE capable of performing without Bent. In fact if we take a look at the twenty games Bent played in while at the club, the team managed exactly twenty goals (1 gpg), and a figure of 1.4 points per game. In the three games in which Bent did not take part, the team scored 6 goals (2GPG) and amassed 7 points at a ratio of 2.33 PPG. While this figure is unrealistically high, it does jar with the earlier idea that the side was incapable of performing without our former star striker. This bears out the opinion of some supporters that Bent was not having his greatest season, and that the team were more than capable of getting results in his absence.
So what reasons can we attribute for the subsequent sub standard results? There have been suggestions in some quarters that Bruce’s side merely took their foot off the gas after a satisfactory first half of the season. Certainly there is some truth to that theory, and this campaign Bruce will be desperate to avoid the type of trail off that has haunted his managerial career.
That said, Bruce was hampered by an unprecedented amount of injuries last term, and there can be no doubt that his attacking options were severely hampered as the team struggled for goals and points. The season long injury to Frazier Campbell could have been offset by having three available strikers, but Bent’s departure meant that Bruce was only left with Danny Welbeck and Gyan.
When Welbeck became the latest player to fall victim to injury, Bruce was left to deploy erstwhile midfielders Phillippe Sessengnon, Elomahandy and even Bolo Zenden as auxiliary attackers to support the flagging Gyan. The African enjoyed an impressive debut season in the EPL, but was in desperate need of a rest towards seasons’ end- a rest the manager could ill afford to give him.
The final few weeks saw Bruce’s side ensure safety with wins over Wigan and West Ham, but it was a season which has left many fans puzzled as to what the future holds.
Certainly Bruce has set about rejuvenating what appears to have been a stagnating squad, and will hope be hoping the new signings will offer the strength in depth which will allow for more consistency. While we haven’t secured the marquee signings some were hoping for, Bruce has obviously opted for the policy of strength in numbers. If the new signings can augment what is essentially a strong squad, we should be ok in the months ahead.
*The stats compiled in the article above are my own calculations
* GPG = goals per game obtained over said period
* PPG = average points obtained over said period
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