This piece originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
With their biggest game of the season looming large, Tottenham should be thankful that it could hardly be against a worse opponent. Sunderland have had a miserable 2012-13 and come to White Hart Lane shorn of their most potent attacking threats in Steven Fletcher and Stéphane Sessegnon. Furthermore, as the Black Cats are now safe from relegation, they have nothing to play for bar pride.
Of course, with everyone’s favourite fascist Paolo Di Canio at the helm, the players and press will endlessly be told that pride is as important as points; that Sunderland will give everything in order to end the season on a high. Indeed, the eccentric Roman has already suggested that any obvious lack of commitment will lead to his cutting short of the players’ summer holidays.
Nonetheless, even at their most fiery and committed, Sunderland are a desperately limited side. Former managers Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill spent small fortunes on absolute deadwood, as is the latter’s particular wont, and as such their figures make for painful reading. In almost every statistical measurement, Sunderland are among the worst sides in the Premier League.
This season, only Stoke, Norwich and Queens Park Rangers have scored fewer goals than Sunderland. Only Stoke, Norwich and Reading have had less of the ball and the same sides are the only ones to take fewer shots per game. At the other end, only Reading, Aston Villa, West Ham and Fulham have allowed more attempts on their goal per game.
Given that Lee Cattermole is their captain, it is no shock to see that Sunderland commit the fifth highest number of fouls per game. More surprisingly, they are the league’s second most fouled side. That can be explained by the fact that they attack down the flanks with an old-fashioned box-to-box 4-4-1-1, a system that prizes aggression and tempo over precision and technique and leads to the bitty, broken style of football that has polluted English football for decades.
Under Di Canio, Sunderland’s style has somehow become even less sophisticated, coming to resemble the League One fare with which the Italian is of course familiar. Their pass completion has dropped to an average of 69.7%, they have increasingly resorted to long balls (20-25% of their passes have been over 25 yards or more) and Di Canio’s only idea appears to be that if his players simply want to win more than their opponents then they probably will.
If there is one positive to be taken from Sunderland’s season it is the form of their goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, whose impressive displays have seen him linked with a summer move to the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United. The big Belgian is a formidable shot-stopper and it seems likely that the result will hinge on his inevitable battle with Gareth Bale.
John O’Shea and Carlos Cuéllar is comfortably the best centre-back pairing available and will begin the game with the promising Alfred N’Diaye sitting just in front of them. N’Diaye’s discipline and strength will go some way to negating Gareth Bale in open play but one would expect Tottenham’s superior skill and midfield fluidity to break Sunderland down eventually.
Phil Bardsley and Jack Colback will be vulnerable at full-back, with Adam Johnson and James McClean appearing convinced that defensive duties are rather beneath their world-beating attacking abilities. Unfortunately for Sunderland fans, while the two wingers share Arjen Robben’s mentality, they are some way short of having his ability.
In the middle, Seb Larsson will be next to useless until the ball becomes dead and the more technical David Vaughan will play some nice passing triangles but struggle to cope with Tottenham’s aggression and verticality.
Sunderland’s lone striker will again be the hapless Danny Graham, a man who in January arrived on Wearside as public enemy number one and since then has gone 864 minutes of football without a goal. With so little likely to be posed in the way of an attacking threat, expect Jan Vertonghen to have one of his more adventurous games.
I will end with a few more statistics: Tottenham have won eight of their last ten home matches against Sunderland in all competitions; Sunderland have lost five of their last six away matches in the Premier League; Sunderland have conceded at least two goals in seven of their last eight away league matches; Tottenham are undefeated in eleven of their last twelve home league games.
The reality is that against such limited opposition, Tottenham should and probably will win comfortably. Whether or not that is good enough to secure Champions League football, we will have to wait and see.