Bruce’s dodgy decisions cost Sunderland at the AMEX

Posted on August 24, 2011 by

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Last night I had the pleasure of going to see Sunderland’s visit to Brighton’s excellent (but distastefully named) American Express Community Stadium. My Dad is a Sunderland fan who now resides in East Sussex, so it seemed like a good opportunity to go.

It was an entertaining League Cup tie, and I was greatly impressed by Brighton’s performance. They looked surprisingly sturdy and adept at soaking up pressure for a side who were playing in League One last season, and I’d echo many others in saying that Gus Poyet looks destined for a Premier League job sooner rather than later (either via promotion from the Championship, or by replacing Harry Redknapp at Spurs).

But sitting, as I was, in the away stand, I tended to focus more on Sunderland’s plight. After an opening 10 minutes of decent pressure but with no serious penetration (i.e. goals), their dominance began to let up and the travelling fans became restless. Their main gripe was with Steve Bruce, and specifically his decision to field Sessegnon (generally considered an attacking midfielder/winger by trade) as a lone striker:

Sessegnon actually played fairly well, dropping deep and wide as something of a “false nine” and receiving the ball in dangerous areas. Sunderland’s main problem, as it seemed to me, was that they didn’t have the necessary midfield runners to make the most of the gaps he was causing in Brighton’s defence. They created half chances, generally via some excellent overlapping play from Kieran Richardson and Ahmed Elmohamady, but there was never anyone in the right place to put the finishing touches on a move. All in all, it seemed like a surprisingly cautious line-up considering the occasion (a League Cup tie against a Championship club), and new strikers Ji Dong-Won, Connor Wickham sat on the bench alongside the under-fit Asamoah Gyan.

Sunderland’s wide midfielders, David Vaughan and Sebastian Larsson, played well and performed their respective roles diligently, but with Vaughan specifically tasked with practically man-marking his opposing right-winger, he was constantly dragged deep, and seemed overall to have more of a defensive brief than an attacking one. In possession, Larsson and Vaughan would drift inside to make space for the fullbacks’ overlap, but this led to a congested and stodgy attacking midfield area, especially with Sessegnon dropping deep and Garder and Colback making runs into that space.

Second-half substitutions

At half-time, though, I was on Bruce’s side. Although the initial line-up had been somewhat negative, Sunderland had had the better of the first-half and you felt that with the right changes, the Black Cats would get some joy later in the game. The away fans were delighted to see Lee Cattermole make way for the phyiscally-impressive, traditional “number nine” Connor Wickham after 52 minutes. But the new 18-year-old signing from Ipswich failed to impress, and stunted a number of attacks with clumsy build-up play (although his ability to control long-balls dropping over his shoulder onto his foot was genuinely impressive). Suddenly, a midfield duo of Craig Gardner and Jack Colback looked lightweight, so Sunderland’s share of possession fell and the chances dried up. A better and subtler move might have been to substitute Gardner, who had had little influence on the game. Brighton certainly had the better of the next 30 minutes or so, nearly breaking the deadlock on a number of occasions.

Bruce’s next move was to swap another hard-working midfielder (Vaughan) for another striker (Ji). The South Korean starlet looked the business when he came on, and it is lamentable that his contribution will be remembered more for the ambitious shot from 20 yards that he spooned high and wide, rather than for the intelligent and energetic build-up play, the quick pass and move and the deft dummies and flick-ons which left me so impressed with his performance. Unlike the comparatively languid Wickham, Ji Dong-Won seemed intent on putting his mark on the game.

Unfortunately for him, his League Cup debut was for an incredibly disjointed and unbalanced team:

As Sunderland sought to equalise after Craig Mackail-Smith’s extra-time finish (Elmo will take the blame for not sticking with his runner, but Richardson did little to stop the cross from coming in from the right), they could’ve really done with an enforcer like Cattermole or Vaughan to free the rest of the midfield to get forward. As it was, Jack Colback tried his best to anchor, as Gardner stayed up the pitch (he had clearly lost the energy to jog back) but Brighton had some of the best chances of the closing minutes.

The problem of the congested attacking midfield area had been exacerbated rather than solved by Bruce’s substitutions, and Brighton were happy to keep it deep and tight at the back before breaking into the space that Sunderland’s midfield had vacated. Admittedly, Bruce’s options on the bench weren’t the best (especially in terms of fast wide players), which is perhaps a symptom of choosing a starting line-up which included six midfielders (eight if you include Elmohamady and Richardson).

Sunderland’s individuals generally performed well, but it seemed that the manager didn’t. As the away fans filed out, there were angry shouts aimed Bruce-wards, most of which included the words “fat,” “Geordie,” and any number of expletives. Ultimately, the changes Bruce made weren’t subtle or intelligent enough to turn the game in Sunderland’s favour, and they ended up being counter-productive. Bringing on a striker for a holding midfielder can be a crowd-pleaser, but it didn’t help to stretch the opposition’s defence or exploit the gaps between it. Brighton took the chance to dominate at home and get their 15,000-strong home crowd behind them, and they ultimately deserved the win.

Although I have generally impressed by the job Bruce has done with Sunderland, the pressure on him has ratcheted up following the recent derby-day defeat at home to Newcastle, and this poor performance against weaker opposition in a competition he explicitly wanted to try and win. He deserves time to allow his new signings to settle in, and if a manager can ever be excused an off-day it is surely in the second round of the Carling Cup. Bruce, however, deserves little credit for his performance at the AMEX.

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Posted in: Football