The prominent message ringing around the Stadium of Light at the moment is to do with staying calm under pressure according to Sunderland midfielder Craig Gardner, as the Black Cats are currently sitting rock bottom in the Premier League table after picking up just one point from their opening four games.
Defeats to Fulham, Crystal Palace and Arsenal have so far dampened the Paolo Di Canio ‘revolution’ which bought a colossal 13 new faces to Wearside this summer, although they were extremely unlucky not to see out an away win at Southampton three games ago, and they’re already approaching their next fixture away at West Bromwich Albion in much need of their first three points.
But for all the recent talk condemning the enthusiastic Di Canio so early on, West Brom are only one position above Sunderland in 19th place and Steve Clarke is also desperate for a win after seeing his side do the complete opposite of last season by starting off rather slow this time around, with just two points being collected thus far.
The Baggies will be hoping their last-gasp draw away at Fulham last weekend, which gave them their first league goal of the new campaign, will give them a boost coming into this game, whilst Sunderland will be eager to repeat the away performance that worked very well at Southampton but with greater concentration for the full 90 minutes.
West Brom will be excited to give both Victor Anichebe and Morgan Amalfitano their home debuts, whilst ex-Sunderland man Stéphane Sessègnon has been granted a work permit following his club record £6m deadline day switch to the Hawthorns and is likely to make his debut against his old club.
In terms of injuries, Ben Foster (foot) and George Thorne (knee) will both miss the clash, whilst Matěj Vydra (hamstring) could make the bench and Zoltán Gera is on the comeback trail after playing 60 minutes for the U21s against Arsenal last Friday after a lengthy knee problem.
Sunderland are still without Phil Bardsley (foot) and Andrea Dossena (unspecified) for the trip to the West Midlands but are boosted by the news that John O’Shea is back after serving a one-match ban, Lee Cattermole is available again after shaking off his knee injury and Di Canio also confirmed this week that Emanuele Giaccherini (hamstring) is set to be involved in some form on Saturday.
Clarke vs Di Canio: Possible Team Line-ups and Brief Tactical Analysis
The first four games have shed light on Di Canio’s willingness to set Sunderland up to attack and besides a controversial refereeing decision on what looked a perfectly fine goal from Jozy Altidore against Arsenal last Saturday, his side gave the Gunners a few problems in the second half and may again line-up with a 4-4-2 formation that easily slips into a 4-2-4 system when either in control of the game or on the counter attack.
Although Charis Mavrias has good pace and fantastic trickery when hugging the flank, Di Canio described Giaccherini as a “crucial” player for his side and therefore the former Swindon boss may opt for creativity out wide in the Italian winger and Adam Johnson, with both Steven Fletcher and Altidore equally potent from quality service, rather than pace and energy and look to take the game to West Brom.
Ki Sung-Yueng, on loan from Swansea City, will be crucial in protecting Sunderland’s backline from a probable player just off the front of Victor Anichebe, whilst Craig Gardner or David Vaughan may start alongside him purely to get the balance of composure and energy in the centre when Di Canio has four attackers in West Brom’s half for example.
Both sides have struggled to maintain a strong amount of possession in their opening four matches, with Sunderland’s highest percentage total being 57.8% against Fulham whilst West Brom have yet to reach a majority portion in a game so far and their 46.7% statistic against Southampton remains their best.
Clarke’s side will look to try and counter Sunderland’s width and flair by forcing the likes of Johnson and Giaccherini to drift inside towards their defensive midfield pairing of Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, who will look to sweep in, intercept the ball and get it forward towards Anichebe to hold up for anyone running off him, such as, Sessègnon or possibly Nicolas Anelka.
Morgan Amalfitano, a natural-minded central midfielder during his days in Ligue 1 with Sedan and Lorient but proved to be easily capable on the right for Marseille, will cover in the middle and also track back down his side all match in order to double up on Giaccherini with team-mate Billy Jones, whilst the same will be replicated on the left through both Chris Brunt and Liam Ridgewell to stop Johnson – should all those players start.
West Brom: Key Men and Where the Game Could Be Won or Lost for Them
When West Brom travelled to Everton for the second game of the season, keeping a clean sheet and picking up a point on a ground where only one team (Chelsea 2012/13) has managed to win there in the last 24 games was more than a solid result.
The defensive partnership of Gareth McAuley and Jonas Olsson remains one of the strongest in the Premier League and Altidore and Fletcher, for as good as they are in the air, will both be hoping the service comes on the floor this weekend as West Brom’s dominant centre-backs will eat up most crosses that come into the box, with Olsson making the most clearances (53) in the division so far whilst Mulumbu and Yacob will both be ready to pounce at anyone cutting inside from the wide areas.
With Sunderland conceding three times already from set pieces this season (Fulham, Southampton, Crystal Palace), both McAuley and Olsson will no doubt be individual threats from good delivery that comes their way and as a result, Chris Brunt could be the key man for West Brom if he can produce the right quality from his cultured left foot.
Since the start of the 2010/11 Premier League season, only Chelsea’s Juan Mata (9) has made more assists from dead ball situations than Brunt (7), whilst the Northern Irishman has also racked up an impressive 20 assists over the last four years – just 11 behind Manchester City’s David Silva, who is leading with 31.
Although many Albion fans will be itching to see Scott Sinclair start and use his speed to try and burn Ondřej Čelůstka all afternoon, Brunt’s excellence in the art of putting the ball into the right areas from set pieces could be vital in this game and therefore may seal his place on the teamsheet.
Anichebe will also be one to watch because he is a test for any defender in the league due to his sheer power and strength when backing into defenders and holding the ball up. The 25-year-old gives your side all the energy in the world and could be a constant pest for both Modibo Diakité and O’Shea, especially with Sessègnon or Anelka running off him into open space – which is a weighty distraction to try and defend against.
Whilst the Nigerian forward will try to bully and run both Diakité and O’Shea ragged for as long as possible, that opens up the possibility for Clarke to throw on a poacher with a good burst of acceleration late in the game in either Saido Berahino or Vydra (should he be fit) to exploit Diakité and O’Shea’s collective tiredness from a day of battling with Anichebe if needed.
By also starting Brunt and Amalfitano on the left and right respectively, West Brom could then convert to a bank of five in midfield to stop any passes going through into the final third that could seriously harm their defence from the opposition and both players will unquestionably track back and contribute to their proverbial 4-4-2 structure.
Should West Brom win the ball that way, and with both Johnson and Giaccherini uninterested in tracking back to support both full-backs consistently enough, this is again an area where the hosts could have some luck as somebody from Sunderland will need to chase back to prevent Brunt delivering sumptuous balls into the box for fun, whilst needless fouls mustn’t be given away to allow him to angle a pinpoint set piece or test the goalkeeper himself with a gifted free-kick.
Sunderland: Key Men and Where the Game Could Be Won or Lost for Them
With Steven Fletcher back fit – the club’s top goalscorer last season with 11 Premier League strikes – Sunderland now look a lot stronger in attack with him and Altidore up top and both will flourish in front of goal if the right service comes from the likes of Mavrias, Giaccherini and Sebastian Larsson on a regular basis this season.
But Adam Johnson, who many felt didn’t warrant last year’s £12m price tag after his displays under Martin O’Neill, has started this season extremely well on the right hand side of Di Canio’s Luigi Delneri inspired system and will indisputably be the most likely man to make something happen for the visitors against West Brom – a testament to how hard he is currently working for the team.
The 26-year-old has created 11 chances, including assists, so far this season with 82% (9) coming from open play and 2 from set pieces. Although Ridgewell has proved for both Birmingham in the past and now West Brom that he is a decent left-back, Johnson’s pace when driving from the wing into the attacking third of the field could cause him and West Brom problems and either Yacob or Brunt will need to try and help him out should Johnson become greatly influential in the match.
Johnson has created a chance every 33 minutes for Sunderland presently and only Chelsea’s Eden Hazard (12 chances with one every 30 minutes) preventing him from topping the creative charts.
Ki and Gardner will add balance in the heart of midfield, and although Johnson and Giaccherini being so high up the pitch could pay dividends if West Brom win possession and break in numbers, it’s up to them to put the ball on a sixpence for Fletcher and Altidore to latch onto and so far, Johnson at least, has done it abundantly.
Whilst there are also some doubts over whether West Brom have replaced the clinical finisher that was Romelu Lukaku last season, Sunderland can give that claim validity this weekend by staying resolute at the back from the evident Brunt and Anichebe threats, whilst shifting from a 4-4-2 system into a 4-2-4 at the right times with penetration leading to goals.
Altidore, who scored 23 times in the Eredivisie and also helped AZ Alkmaar lift the KNVB Cup last season, just needs one goal to get his confidence flowing and in a game that could be a bit scrappy or end-to-end, those styles could suit him at this moment in time in order to break his duck in the Premier League.
Steven Fletcher has scored three goals in his last four Premier League appearances against West Brom, whilst Nicolas Anelka has netted seven in his last 10 against Sunderland.
West Brom are currently unbeaten in their last seven Premier League meetings with Sunderland, winning six and losing none.
Steve Clarke’s side have won none of their last eight Premier League games, whilst Sunderland have only won two of their last 19 games (L11 D6) and have conceded more second half goals (6) than any other side this season.
It’s an encounter between two teams, whose supporters are both starting to become a little worried and are hoping to see their side pick up the coveted three points.
West Brom have some good options on the bench to change things around should Clarke need to do so but Brunt and Anichebe will ultimately need to be star performers, whilst Sunderland have been unlucky in some of their games so far and the onus will again be on Johnson and Giaccherini to shine for them.
Set-piece delivery and the centre of midfield will be two decisive areas to watch and analyse, as both sides have the capability to win but can just as easily cancel each other out.
Prediction: West Brom 1-1 Sunderland
Referee: Phil Dowd