This article originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
Perhaps mercifully for Tim Sherwood and Tottenham Hotspur, Monday’s visitors to White Hart Lane will be Sunderland. The Black Cats are coming to the end of a car-crash season that is all but certain to end in their relegation: they now have a 72.04% chance of going down according to bsports.com’s projections, and if they were to go down it must be said that they would not be missed.
The blame for this sorry debacle lies squarely on the shoulders of Sunderland’s owner, Ellis Short. The American billionaire has expected big things given the money he has spent on the club, but following a succession of disastrous managerial appointments he will have to contend with at least one season in English football’s unforgiving second flight before he can think about good times coming to Wearside.
Steve Bruce was Short’s first man up. Much was made of Bruce’s history as a Newcastle fan but in truth the fans were more bothered by the fact that Bruce’s idea of management seemed to be spending more money than he could ever dream of having at his disposal in every single transfer window but never attempting to make a team out of the players he signed.
Managerial charlatan Martin O’Neill followed and, as he did at Aston Villa, spent lots of money on terrible players, systematically drained all flair out of the squad and ruined morale. Staring relegation in the face, he left a hollow shell of a football club behind, typically claiming that he was not given enough time.
Even bigger managerial charlatan Paolo Di Canio succeeded O’Neill and got around his new charges’ lack of footballing ability by filling the husk of a team with motivational hot air, keeping it afloat seemingly through sheer dumb luck. Having then spent a lot of money on players that had no business playing for Sunderland, Di Canio predictably fell out with senior members of the squad, who saw Di Canio’s methods as overly dogmatic and repressive.
Incumbent boss Gus Poyet seems a decent enough tactician, having impressed at Brighton and Hove Albion, but he finds himself in an unfortunate position. Realistically speaking, the Uruguayan cannot extract anything more from this squad than any of his predecessors: many of the players have long since abandoned any pretence of professionalism.
Rumours are rife that senior players’ lifestyles and diets hark back to English football’s booziest periods and, having seen their showings on the pitch this season, such hearsay can readily be believed.
Tactically, Poyet has tried a number of ideas, usually a reactive variant of 4-3-3. They seek to protect their fragile/disinterested (delete as applicable) rearguard while streamlining attacking moves, funnelling attacks down the flanks and encouraging players to shoot on sight. They have even looked to pass the ball around, rather than stopping the play and attacking from set-pieces, as Sunderland became prone to doing under Bruce, O’Neill and Di Canio.
Unfortunately, their attacks rarely result in success. Forwards Steven Fletcher, Jozy Altidore and Connor Wickham cost Sunderland a combined £33.8m but have only contributed a combined four goals this season. Admittedly, there are mitigating circumstances: Fletcher has been injured for long spells; Altidore obviously has not been integrated in any meaningful sense; the totally talentless Wickham belongs in a weightlifting competition rather than on a football pitch.
Nonetheless, the goalscoring burden has fallen on Adam Johnson, of being-Andros-Townsend-before-Andros-Townsend-was-Andros-Townsend fame, and Fabio Borini, who possesses all the confidence of a rabbit stood in the middle of the road in front of an onrushing Land Rover.
At this point it would be customary to write about Sunderland’s defence and their tactics without the ball, but they do not appear to have any, which makes that rather difficult. While that makes it more difficult for me, however, that should make things considerably easier for Spurs. Or, at least it would if they had any attacking tactics themselves.
So, to the probable line-up: every good defence begins with a good goalkeeper, so simply by having Vito Mannone between the sticks Sunderland are engaged to some degree in wanton self-sabotage. The former Arsenal man had potential once but whatever talent resided in his body and his mind has long since been destroyed by the toxicity of his surroundings.
Phil Bardsley, derided alongside Lee Cattermole by Paolo Di Canio as “the most unprofessional player I ever worked with”, will start at right-wing-back and will not be particularly upset when Tottenham open the scoring. Bardsley is fond of a shot from distance but his return of two goals from 26 shots is hardly encouraging from the visitors’ point of view.
Even less bothered will be John O’Shea and Wes Brown, both signed from Manchester United on the basis that their years of experience at Champions League level meant that they were both world-class centre-backs, when it was obvious to all neutral observers that said years of experience were proof that Alex Ferguson could just about turn water into wine.
January loan signing and incongruously good player Marcos Alonso will play at left-wing-back, showing the crowd that although they might not have anything else, Sunderland definitely have a better player in that position than Spurs. With 1.9 shots per game, 1.3 key passes, 1.1 dribbles, 3.6 tackles and 2.7 interceptions, Alonso is by far the visitors’ most productive player statistically.
Poyet has options when it comes to the next selection: if he were to stick with his forward thinking 4-3-3 from the last game, he would pick Liam Bridcutt in front of the defence and look to dictate terms; otherwise, Lee Cattermole would play a more destructive role or Santiago Vergini would play as a third centre-back – a plan that makes little sense unless they are sure Tim Sherwood will play both Emmanuel Adebayor and Roberto Soldado.
More conventional midfield options Ki Sung-Yueng and Jack Colback will play just ahead, supplying the wide-men with short, simple passes and providing the second screen in front of the back four, at least theoretically.
Top scorer and apparent World Cup squad hopeful Adam Johnson will cut inside and shoot from the right flank until he goes blue in the face, at which point he will consider passing to a teammate before cutting inside and shooting some more. Fabio Borini would do the same on the other side if he could just muster up the courage.
Connor Wickham started the last match up front but as usual was utterly useless, so it would not be a surprise to see the considerably more talented but obviously misused Jozy Altidore return to the side in his place. With such a bad side behind him it would be a shock were either to score, but if Altidore starts and gets the kind of chance that Spurs’ centre-backs have been so keen to donate to their opposition of late, expect him to bury it.
Thankfully, Sunderland are so monumentally bad that even if whichever two of Michael Dawson, Younes Kaboul and Barcelona’s Jan Vertonghen give away a goal, Tottenham should be able to score a few of their own. Frankly, if Roberto Soldado cannot score in this one, he will probably never find the net again.