Rock bottom: Are Poyet’s Sunderland doomed?

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It is often said that football is a numbers game, and those numbers make for particularly dire reading for Sunderland fans just now.

20th position, after eight games, having scored five goals, gone through three managers, and notched just one point. Sunderland have officially recorded the worst start to a Premier League season ever. Which begs the question – is it over for the Black Cats already?

Let’s take a look at some historical precedents, to see if there are any instances of clubs who have made similarly horrific starts turning their form around and achieving survival.

In 1993-94, the very first season of the Premier League, John Gorman’s Swindon found themselves way out of their depth in the top flight of English football, taking only three points from their first eight games. They finished bottom. Fast forward just over ten years to 2003-04, and Derby found themselves with just eight points after eight games, and were too relegated. As were Norwich in 2004-05 and Sunderland in 2005-06, who had each amassed just five points after eight games. QPR, who finished bottom of the Premier League last season, had three points after eight games.

On the flipside, fans of North East neighbours Newcastle United fondly remember the arrival of Bobby Robson in 1999, who steered the club away from relegation despite the club languishing at the foot of the table after seven games and just one point. They won their eighth 8-0. And in 2004-05 West Bromwich Albion avoided relegation despite recording just one win in their first 11 games.

These instances do appear to be exceptions to the rule, however. History tells us that with the kind of points total Sunderland have at this stage of the season, relegation is an overwhelming possibility.

And yet we are only eight games in to the season, with thirty to play. Sunderland are six points from safety, with a January transfer window to negotiate. Surely this is enough time for Poyet to have a positive impact and turn the ship around?

To do so, there are some fundamental issues he will need to address.

1. Get the basics right, and keep concentration levels up for the full 90 minutes

Ask Sunderland fans what their biggest problem has been so far this season, and high up on the list of responses will be an inability to defend properly. The Black Cats have, by some distance, leaked the highest number of goals of any Premier League team this season (20), and too many of them have come from basic errors, or instances where they are defending set pieces.

It’s also interesting to note that nearly three quarters of the goals that Sunderland have conceded in the league this season have come in the second half of games – often in the final 25 minutes. If the Black Cats had kept the opposition out during this closing period of their games this season, they would have had an extra five points – not enough to lift them off the bottom, but potentially critical in a fight to stay in the Premier League.

As an urgent priority, Gus Poyet must arrest these trends. He must prioritise being solid at the back, getting the basics right, and keeping concentration levels high for the full 90 minutes. In John O’Shea, he has a captain capable of marshalling a defence properly, and his leadership skills will be vital in ensuring that Sunderland stop giving away silly goals.

2. Transform the collection of new arrivals into a cohesive squad

Sunderland embarked upon a revamp of their playing squad this summer. Stephane Sessegnon, Matt Kilgallon, Titus Bramble, James McLean, and Danny Graham all left the club, while a host of talents drawn from across the globe were recruited, including high profile stars Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini.

Given the scale of this change, perhaps it is not surprising that the team have appeared disjointed to date. Integrating the number of new signings within a matter of weeks is no small task, and dispensing with their manager so soon in the season will not make it easier. Di Canio himself did not seem at ease with some of the new signings made, indicating he may never have approved of some of the players brought in.

Poyet will have to wait until January for his chance to refresh the team, so as an urgent priority he must assess his current squad, find a best starting 11, and craft a cohesive team capable of scoring points on a regular basis.

3. Get the best out of underperforming players

Although their form over the past two seasons has been poor, Sunderland nevertheless do possess some players capable of high quality performances. I have already identified John O’Shea as key in this regard, and goalscorer Steven Fletcher also springs immediately to mind – his contributions last season were invaluable in keeping the club in the Premier League.

Injuries have interrupted Fletcher’s season so far, but there remains hope that he and the powerful Altidore could become a formidable partnership. Key to this will be the delivery of good service from wide positions, and Poyet will be looking to (former) England international Adam Johnson to recapture his early promise and finally deliver on a consistent basis for Sunderland.

Quick, imaginative and capable of unleashing unstoppable strikes, Johnson has been subdued for much of his time on Wearside. If Poyet could get him back to firing on all cylinders, then he is a player capable of winning games for Sunderland. But that remains a big if.


Sir Alex Ferguson commented this week that Roy Hodgson had the most difficult job in football. While I am minded to agree, Gus Poyet must be vying for a close second place behind the England manager.

Sunderland have a mountain to climb to maintain their Premier League status. Clubs who have faced similar challenges have tended to fail, and Poyet has a number of urgent issues that need addressing if they are to have any hope of survival.

So if football is a numbers game, the odds are very definitely stacked against the Black Cats right now. But try telling that to 45,000 Mackems this Sunday when Newcastle come to town. A win against their biggest rivals, and Poyet will at least have a platform to build upon.

Download Hit Row Z’s first ever podcast here! 



  1. 1 point from a possible 24 suggests it’s looking increasingly ominous for the Black Cats. However, that could all change come Sunday evening. I expect Poyet to play the familiar faces (Cattermole, Gardner, Johnson et al) and have them all fired-up for the Derby. I’m personally hoping that Newcastle have enough but in truth I think it will be a tight game.

    That said, with Sunderland travelling to Hull, Stoke and Villa over the coming weeks, and a home fixture against Man City sandwiched inbetween, if Newcastle can emerge victorious then the pressure will pile on and there’ll be no grace period for the Uruguayan…..

  2. Steve Clift says:

    Giaccherini, Larsson and Johnson. Three players that have shown glimpses of their abilities, but all too infrequently. I’m sure Poyet will get an improvement, but without further spending in January, they are as good as down. I’d be tempted to put a fiver on Ellis Short hiring another manager before April!

    • Short has invested heavily in my view, without getting a great deal back in return. I’m not sure they will spend much (or well?) in January, so would work on the assumption that by and large the squad will remain as it is.

      Predictions ahead of the derby??

  3. Steve Clift says:

    I love Cabaye, Remy, Krul and Ben Arfa, but they never seem to shine at the same time. I’d sit on the fence and say 1-1, Fletcher with a late equaliser.

  4. Mick Carter says:

    Have you honestly watched the performances of John O’Shea for Sunderland. Seriously pedestrian at best and at worst simply awful.


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